Ads' influence falls away in a 'message election'

  • Article by: JOHN RASH
  • March 2, 2008 - 10:47 PM

An electrified electorate has crowded into ballot boxes and in front of TV boxes as the surprises of Campaign 2008 provided the drama -- and occasionally comedy -- that was in short supply during the recent Writers Guild of America strike.

But perhaps the biggest surprise has been the reduced role of campaign commercials. Despite record fundraising, political spending has had a negligible -- and at times, inverse -- effect on voter outcome.

"Ads have been less influential than in any recent election," explained Darrell West, a Brown University professor of political science who literally wrote the book on presidential political advertising ("Air Wars''). "This is a message election. The economy and Iraq cannot be spun, so ads aren't very influential in shaping the agenda."

There's been extensive campaign coverage in every media form. And a record number of debates has brought record ratings to the cable news networks.

The debates, and how they later influence the news narrative, "make advertising less relevant," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a Waconia, Minn., native and nationally recognized expert in political communication. "Advertising works, but works best in a low-information environment."

Usually, high ad expenditures fill the low-information vacuum, but the often straight line between priming the money pump and winning primaries and caucuses is anything but linear, particularly in the GOP race. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, for example, has raised $12.9 million, according to the Federal Election Commission. But despite spending the least, he was among the last man standing between John McCain's presumptive nomination. Indeed, both the leading GOP candidates are noted more for their fundraising problems than for their prowess. The McCain campaign nearly imploded in 2007 after running low on cash, and the Huckabee campaign had hardly any money.

Conversely, those Republicans who have big bank accounts, such as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney ($105.1 million, with 40 percent from his own wallet) and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani ($64 million) raised more than McCain ($53.7 million). Mirroring the tight race on the Democratic side, the fundraising between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton has been much closer, with Obama raising $138.2 million, 2.7 percent more than Clinton's $134.5 million through January (although in that month he nearly doubled her dollars, $36 million to $18.9 million).

Nominees outshine ads

Despite the amount raised and spent, neither campaign's commercials have risen to the excitement level the nominees themselves have generated.

"You can't run ads from the 2004 election in the type of climate we have now, due to this being a historic open seat and the historic nature of the candidacies," said Bill Hillsman, president and chief creative officer of North Woods Advertising, who began his career marketing consumer products and later created seminal spots for the late Sen. Paul Wellstone and former Gov. Jesse Ventura, among others.

Hillsman concludes there has been "very little good work on the political side, by any measurement we would use in commercial advertising."

And compared with the normal case of campaign advertising being more eloquent than the candidate, Obama's commercials, conversely, aren't as charismatic as he is.

"With this guy's story, how can you not do great advertising? If you had Obama as your product against Clinton you should be even [in the race] with only 70 percent of the dollars," he said.

Not that there hasn't been notable political communication in support of the Obama campaign. But true to this year's ethos of voters reasserting control of the political process, it's been viral videos on YouTube such as "Obama Girl," the parody of Apple's "1984" ad casting Hillary Clinton as "Big Sister," and the recent "Yes We Can" music video by and an assortment of music and movie stars, channeling, if not chanting, an Obama speech.

Brown University's West concurs, saying the senator's best ads "are basically Obama playing to the inspiration themes with cuts from his speeches."

With his free media seemingly more effective than his paid media, forgoing federal financing (with the accompanying $85 million spending limit) becomes a significant strategic risk: running as a reformer, Obama may lose the campaign-finance high ground, while not gaining ground via campaign ads.

Implications in Minnesota

This year's altered state of campaign advertising had statewide implications in Minnesota, at least for the Feb. 5 caucuses. Only the Obama campaign bought a significant TV schedule. This may temporarily hurt the bottom line for an industry that still depends on political advertising "to count on the even years as good years," according to Susan Adams Loyd, vice president and general manager at WCCO-TV. "Many were surprised at how candidates held back."

Needing to be a keen observer of the political and media marketplace, Adams Loyd wonders whether candidates "have said, 'We don't have to advertise as much, since people here are already so well-informed.'" She said campaign managers may say, "Let's wake up other states that have lots of delegates and are asleep."

This year's awakening, accelerated by the new news environment of 24/7 multimedia campaign coverage, also has been amplified by old-fashioned word of mouth. Talking politics makes 2008 seem more like 1968. Accordingly, what may be bad news for political spending in Minnesota may be good news for political participation nationally, as more efficient and as effective communication tools complement -- if not compete with -- campaign commercials, lowering the barrier for potential candidates.

Money still matters. But more than ever, it's easier for candidates to break through with their messages. And for viewers-turned-voters to better evaluate politics and politicians beyond a 30-second spot.

"People should no longer be afraid of fundraising as a barrier to run for office," concludes West. "So far, the ads weren't very influential, but the information was."

John Rash is senior vice president and director of media negotiations at Campbell Mithun advertising. He also teaches mass media classes at the University of Minnesota and writes a weekly column for Advertising Age’s website. His “Rash Report” radio show is on at 11:45 a.m. weekdays on WCCO. His e-mail is


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