Harry and Louise on Steroids

You don't hear much about individual advertisers that are spending more in these straitened times, much less entire categories of advertisers doing so. But this is exactly what's happening with political advertising. Yes, the debate over health care has advocacy group after advocacy group advertising all over TV and the radio dials. They're spending more than a million bucks a day, says Evan Tracey, who tracks political ad spending for media tracker TNS Media Intelligence (which provided the ad data presented herein). But the bigger story goes beyond health care, which through Aug. 19 this year had not yet accounted for 20% of all paid political advertising. For the foreseeable future, and for that matter probably forever, we are in a world where major legislative battles will be accompanied by major ad campaigns. Consider the next batch of issues likely to turn up in congressional bills: card check, immigration reform, cap and trade. "There is a glut in the pipeline" of such broad-gauged issues, says Jeff Eller, vice-chairman of political communications firm Public Strategies. And they all come festooned with several hot buttons for opponents to press. All have significant implications for Big Business, which will be all too happy to buy ads by the metric ton to put forth their views to sway undecided voter blocs or pressure those who barely won their congressional seats last time around.

The fundamental truth about political advertising is that it's never been particularly affected by gravity. Unlike other categories, political ad spending has gone up from election cycle to election cycle. Anyone who thinks off-year, issue-related advertising will wither once the current controversies have faded is betting against reality. "The notion there are off years" in politics, says Tracey, "has been proven completely phony."

There is nothing new about spending significant dollars on issue advertising in the year following an exhausting Presidential election. What's changed is the sheer scope of such spending. Ads against and for President Bill Clinton's health-care plan in 1993 and 1994 cost at least $18 million. That's more than $26 million in 2009 dollars, but chump change by current standards. Through mid-August, $436 million had been spent on issue-related ads this year. This already dwarfs what was spent in the last comparable post-Presidential election year of 2005—and bear in mind this is the alleged dog-days lull and that an actual health-care bill doesn't even exist yet to agitate for or against. Also, though I hate to remind you, the 2010 election machine is just starting to gear up, meaning an avalanche of candidates' ads soon will be landing at radio and TV stations across the land. Excuse me, did I say, "soon will be"? In several states—among them Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, New Mexico, and Virginia—they're already there, and have pushed total political outlays thus far this year to a bit less than $520 million. Meanwhile, the dynamics of such spending have been noticed, to put it mildly, at TV stations. "It looks to me like a record off-year" for political spending, says John Hendricks, an executive vice-president of Tribune Broadcasting, "driven by issue and advocacy money."

The overwhelming majority of these political ad dollars is being spent on TV. TNS data show that this year around 96% of political spending went there. (Forget the digitizing of the ad landscape when it comes to politics. As with the Obama campaign of '08, the Web is used almost exclusively to raise funds and push news to the already committed rather than sway the undecided.)

Public Strategies' Eller, for one, disputes that political spending is on an ever-upward trajectory. He suggests that one factor driving this year's glut of political TV ads is the downturn in television ad revenue, which positions politicos to negotiate better deals than ever before. But clearly more than mere pricing has led to a truckload of issue ads. While the $2.8 billion spent on political advertising in the Presidential election year of '08 didn't match what Procter & Gamble (PG) alone spent on ads, I suspect media executives are glad to have a category worth several hundred million dollars that's growing by leaps and bounds in an off year—and all the more so if they own a bunch of TV or radio stations in swing states.

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