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The Political Bust of TV Ads

Let’s be honest: as a medium, television just isn’t what it used to be.  We live in a digital age, where the glowing screen in our living rooms that once dominated information and entertainment now has competition from a myriad of sources.  From Facebook to YouTube and tablet publications to on-demand streaming video, to the existence of DVRs and TiVo, television is being challenged from all fronts.  And it’s losing.

Yet, as the 2012 campaign rages on, billions of dollars will be spent on television advertising. In 2008, more than $2 billion was spent on political television advertisements including expenditures by candidates, parties, and advocacy groups according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group.  In this year of the ubiquitous SuperPACs, the number will probably be twice as high. Yes, $4 billion dollars on TV ads.

But look at the bright side: at least consultants and TV stations will be doing well in this economy.

Donors really need to consider how to invest in the political process this year and in the future, and they would do well to treat their decisions like investments.  When looking at effectiveness and Return on Investment (ROI), TV is more of a bust than ever before.  If donors want to invest to really impact elections, it’s time for a paradigm shift.

Our politics would be more dynamic, more participatory and more representative if big political donors, outside groups and campaigns spent even a fraction of the money they do on TV on actual ground operations. And by ground operations, I don’t mean rallies or bus tours. I mean real, targeted door-to-door, with some live phone banking thrown in. Consider this: a million dollars will get you roughly a thousand points of statewide coverage in Ohio. That’s about 10 ads a day for a week. Then poof, it’s gone. On the other hand, investing in grassroots infrastructure is also about investing in the future.  Training, organizing and deploying precinct canvassers, setting up phone banks and handing out literature tailored to specific voting blocks will move the needle for pennies per voter rather than dollars.

A good ground game using reliable voter data has proven to increase turnout for candidates significantly (in 2010, in the precincts American Majority Action did GOTV in, turnout increased 8-10% over previous elections).   New mobile campaign management, survey and voter contact software is making it even more effective (think Gravity, and for truth in advertising, yes, Gravity is a joint project of Political Gravity and American Majority Action).   That’s exactly why traditional grassroots tactics are still the best bet to get voters to the polls.   Put simply, what’s old should be new again.  It just works better.

In the marketplace, one doesn’t usually increase investment in a product that continually has decreasing market share, but in the political world, it seems that return on investment has little relevance.  Television advertising may make consultants, strategists and the TV stations a fortune; which by the way, has anyone really thought about the fact that by dumping hundreds of millions into the mainstream media, we’re actually feeding the hand that bites us?Beyond that, I’m of the opinion that an over-reliance on “the air war” can have a depressing effect on the process as a whole.

You have to ask yourself: how many people are even really watching TV anymore? A 2011 study showed that less than 60% of people now consider watching TV as their primary source of video content.  Of those, almost a third admits they no longer watch any live television, relying instead on DVR recordings and TiVo where they can skip over the ads.

The real kicker according to Google’s recent analytics is that an astonishing 80% of smartphone users say they actively use their mobile devices while watching television.  So even if voters are watching TV, logic would dictate they’re using their phones more during commercials rather than during programming.   Even the explosion in tablet users is competing with traditional TV ad buys.

None of these statistics by itself is enough to say that TV commercials aren’t at all effective, but it is clear that spending on the medium will have to increase continually in order to compete for audience mindshare more effectively.  Spending on television may go up, but effectiveness will continue to trend downward.

Of course, it just so happens that the most expensive tactic with perhaps the lowest ROI is the one that makes consultants the most money – and donors should be wary.

You can do all the targeting on cable television you want, but you can’t make people pay attention if they don’t want to.  If your 18-35 year old male baseball fan recorded the game on DVR, he’s probably not watching the commercials.  If he’s watching it live, according to the trends he’s more likely checking ESPN.com or texting in between innings.  So consultants can buy thousands of points of advertising, but the impact of that buy is not nearly what it used to be even just a few years ago.

This isn’t a knock against commercials particularly when leveraging online video.  Video isn’t dying.   YouTube is the second most used search engine in the world behind its parent company Google.  Video and other visuals are driving traffic on social media and online generally.

The issue at hand is whether the billions donated and then spent on television is a good value for the dollar.  Here’s a subtle hint: it’s not.  As digital mediums become increasingly more pervasive in our daily lives, our on-demand society is becoming more specialized but also more impersonal.

The biggest difference between grassroots ground war and the traditional air war is telling about the process as a whole.   More personal, human contact tactics like block walking, phone banking, voter surveying and get-out-the-vote efforts are harder because they involve organizing and deploying people.   They are also less lucrative for consultants and strategists.

Television commercials are easier because they are transactional.  A consultant in DC can produce a commercial, buy air time, and collect his 15% fee for a campaign in northern Michigan without setting foot outside his office.

Sure, TV can help with name identification and driving some perceptions – but it simply doesn’t mobilize voters.  The sound of the doorbell and personal interaction is still far more efficient and effective at getting candidates over the finish line than the inevitable white noise of interminable political commercials.

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