Wall Street Journal 10-25-2010
Political Ads Inundate Media Markets
Rates Soar Fivefold in Cities With Tight Races, Like Syracuse and Seattle, Prompting Candidates to Find Creative Solutions
By Elizabeth Williamson and Suzanne Vranica
U.S. political candidates have amassed more advertising cash this year than ever before. The hard part is finding places to spend it.
In the busiest markets, which include California, Nevada, Arizona and Florida, prime spots are virtually closed to nonpolitical advertisers until after Nov. 2.
Ad rates are up fivefold in markets with newly tight races, including Syracuse, N.Y., the site of two toss-up House races, and Seattle, where Democratic Washington Sen. Patty Murray is fighting a surge by Republican challenger Dino Rossi.
The glut has forced candidates and their ad buyers to wait, innovate or try to game the system.
Given its small budget and soaring prices, the Louisiana Democratic Party couldn’t afford to run in prime time a documentary-style, two-minute ad about Republican Sen. David Vitter’s admitted past ties to a Washington madam. Instead, it ran late-night ads for a week in early September. A longer version ran on two separate websites.
Vitter spokesman Luke Bolar said Democratic nominee Charlie Melancon “is obviously really desperate if he has to resort to personal attacks to duck and divert attention from his abysmal voting record on the issues.”
A Supreme Court ruling in January freed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on independent campaign advertising. Combined with a series of competitive races in high-priced television markets, ad spending is on track to top $4.2 billion this year, compared with about $2.5 billion in 2008.
“It’s the strongest market I have ever seen for a non-presidential race,” said Paul Wasserman, general sales manager at WLPG in Miami, an ABC affiliate owned by the Washington Post Co., where ad rates adjacent to news programming, a favorite slot, have doubled from pre-election levels.
As a result, digital-ad agencies have seen political spending on the Web change this season, with more campaigns paying to run video ads on Web sites. Previously, they would post TV commercials on YouTube and hope they went viral.
After the Supreme Court ruling, one veteran buyer booked nine months’ worth of prime TV spots in expected competitive states on behalf of outside political groups backing Republicans, the buyer said. That locked out some Democratic buyers, he said, and locked in a low rate. The buyer cancels unneeded time two weeks in advance, as is generally required in such contracts.
Ad buyers with union clients are doing the same, said Eric Adelstein of Chicago-based buyers Adelstein Liston. “You try to max out the best-rated stations first” for groups, he said. Some stations have started turning down ad buys from candidates, because by tradition they pay a lower rate than independent advocacy groups.
Smart Media Group, a suburban Washington ad buyer with GOP clients, maintains a Twitter feed of Democratic ad cancellations. The feed alerts Republicans to buying opportunities, and serves as a barometer of Democrats’ shifting spending priorities.
In California, some GOP-backing groups are finding inexpensive time on Christian and talk-radio stations instead of regular broadcast and cable TV. Online, conservative groups compete for spots on the Drudge Report, while liberal groups vie for placement on the Huffington Post Web site.
In Illinois, ads for federal and local races have jammed Chicago news broadcast schedules, forcing some political buyers to chase tiny audiences in the wee hours, use cable, or make a single, expensive network buy, for example, during a football game.
The Susan B. Anthony List, an antiabortion group, is doing a lot more direct mail. Postage alone comes to $300,000. “We’re keeping the postal service in business by ourselves,” said group spokeswoman Kerry Brown.
Some things haven’t changed this year from prior campaigns: production quality. Revere America, a nonprofit that supports opponents of the health-care overhaul, is saving money with ads that superimpose candidates’ names and faces in several races across the country over the same generic video and voiceover.
Political campaigns “will always have sloppier creative ads,” said Josh Koster, managing partner of Washington-based agency Chong and Koster, who is advising a number of candidates for the midterms. “Where else do you see ads that go from script to airing in less than 24 hours?”