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Why TV Ads Are a Waste of Money

By Steven Stark

With his decision to forgo public funding, Barack Obama can raise as much as he wants, giving him a huge financial advantage in the fall campaign. If he spends that cash on organization, registration, and get-out-the-vote efforts, he will absolutely get his money's worth. But if he spends a major portion of it on television advertising, he will only be doing John McCain a favor.

That's because the era of TV advertising in presidential general elections is over.

It expired without anyone's really realizing it, a victim of a new media age -- and terrible implementation. In truth, TV ads have never been that important in presidential general elections (as opposed to the primary process). They're rarely very good, and voters have always had many other competing, and more credible, sources of information out there. After all, if there's one thing Americans know how to do, it's how to watch TV ads with a jaundiced eye.

It's revealing that the few creative political ads the past generation remembers actually came in contests where the outcome was pre-ordained and consultants felt free to experiment. The 1984 Reagan "Bear" ad was a classic, for instance, but would Reagan have received any fewer votes had it never aired? Ditto for Nixon's 1972 "Turnaround" ad against McGovern. The most infamous ad of them all -- Johnson's so-called daisy ad against Goldwater (created by the brilliant Tony Schwartz, who died this past week) -- not only came before LBJ's landslide 1964 victory, it only ran once. So much for its effect on voters.

To the extent that TV ads have ever had an impact in a general election, that influence has been sharply diminished by the Internet and TiVo Ages. Viewers now receive their information in ways that minimize their contact with commercials. Sure, advertisers still flock to television. But effective product commercials these days run far more often and strategically than do political ads, and production-value-wise, they are light years ahead of anything the candidates ever put out.

The proof is in the pudding. Remember those great ads from the Bush-Kerry race only four years ago? How about Clinton-Dole or Bush-Gore? Of course you don't. Not even political junkies can recall ads from those campaigns, though they can remember the debates, a convention speech or two, and the general themes of the campaigns.

Making the media circuit

The last great advertising thrust in presidential politics came 20 years ago -- eons in media terms -- when the Bush forces launched their Willie Horton assault on Michael Dukakis. But even then, the real impact didn't come from the ads themselves, but rather from the media, which replayed them endlessly on the news. That's the way ads are really used today (see the Swift Boat controversy of 2004). Never mind directly reaching out to the voters; instead, issues are interjected via the media. It's an odd process, though. It's as if Hollywood made movies not for the public but only for critics, who would then show us the clips and tell us why they're important.

If Obama were to splash, say, $40 million on TV ads in Virginia alone, well, that might make a difference -- not that even Obama is going to have money to spend like that. But that's simply due to total saturation, not to anything the ads themselves might say. Obama with his family, Obama talking foreign policy, a test pattern with the name Obama over it -- it wouldn't really matter.

If ads don't mean much of anything in a general election, why is so much attention paid to them? Part of it is because the press zeroes in on them, which, in the echo chamber of national politics, makes them important -- though even then not as much as anyone thinks. And why do reporters cover them? They're the easiest stories in the world to report, because you don't even have to leave your air-conditioned office and you can pretend to be a TV critic.

Consultants certainly have a reason for promoting the influence of TV ads; without them, their fees would go down. And who wants to take the risk and become the first general-election candidate in modern times to abstain from paid TV?

Today, all a presidential candidate really needs to do is film a few commercials, screen them for the reporters and networks who will disseminate them, and then file them away on a shelf. TV ads in general elections don't sway the masses anymore. All they do is waste a lot of money. And Obama, who has already started advertising on TV, will certainly be able to waste the largest amount in recent history. As they say, easy come, easy go.

Boston Phoenix


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