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Don't just blame Citizens United for the surge in political TV ads

May 12, 2014, at 8:38 AM
 
Recent ads criticizing ObamaCare have moved away from the creepy, fear-based tone.

Recent ads criticizing ObamaCare have moved away from the creepy, fear-based tone. Photo: (YouTube)

Recently on Political Wire's podcast, we spoke to Elizabeth Wilner of Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group on the flood of political advertisements that are already hitting the TV airwaves.

Here are five takeaways from the conversation:

1. Political advertising has increased and has started much earlier in the campaign season the past few cycles. In the past three election cycles, it seems as though the political advertising wave has begun earlier and earlier, and with far greater volumes of advertisements and expenditures. "Only going back to 2010 have we seen these volumes of advertising and amounts of money [spent]," Wilner said. The increase in advertising volume and spending, and the earlier start, are explained largely by outside group advertisers, which want to take early action to define and attack vulnerable incumbents, to catch the attention of voters before they totally tune out political ads, and to take advantage of lower advertising costs. Wilner said we can expect the volume of ads and spending on them to gradually increase after general-election season kicks into full gear.

2. The Citizens United decision is just one factor behind the early start. "A lot of the hype is true, but not all of it," Wilner said. It is true that the recent Supreme Court decision has opened the door to more spending on advertising by outside groups (and now McCutcheon will help party committees raise more money, which they can then use on advertisements). "But when you think about some of the biggest names we're familiar with in outside group TV advertising — Crossroads GPS, even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — those organizations would exist without Citizens United," Wilner said. The Affordable Care Act, or ObamaCare, is another reason for the early advertising start, as conservative groups seek to bolster and leverage anger on the right and skepticism in the middle toward the health law. And the battle for Senate control has been a huge factor — and, perhaps counter-intuitively, this point even held true in 2012, Wilner said: "Most of the money you’d think coming in a presidential year is driven by presidential advertising."

3. Advertisers are making at least some progress on connecting their ads to their online and social media presences. Even as recently as the 2012 campaign season, very few political advertisements sought to tell the viewer how to find or connect with the makers online. Back in 2012, "I would have told you that I could probably count them on both hands." But in 2014, campaigns, parties, and groups are making more of an effort, she said. "We are now seeing many many more ads that include Twitter hashtags for candidates URLs for their websites, things that try to send people online," Wilner said. It's not an advertising revolution just yet. Campaigns have made major use of social media and other digital tools to target voters more efficiently and effectively. But when it comes to advertising, TV spots haven't done much more than including Twitter hashtags and URLs, Wilner said.

4. Outside groups are trying to soften the negativity in their ads. Political TV advertisements were notoriously negative in the 2012 campaign season. In particular, Wilner said, Mitt Romney's presidential campaign suffered from a dearth of positive advertising, and that may have hurt his chances of capturing the White House. "It does seem that those advertisers have learned a few things since and applied them to their advertising in 2014," she said. This time, outside groups are softening their harshness of their negative advertisements' tones. For example, recent advertisements criticizing ObamaCare feature Americans speaking on camera in a sympathetic tone on their fears about the health care law. People will be less turned off by those types of advertisements than they would by more conventional attack ads, she said. These ads, she added, seem like a conservative analog to liberal groups' 2012 ads on Bain Capital, Mitt Romney's one-time private-equity firm.

5. But don't expect the softened tone to last forever. As campaign season heats up and moves into the general-election phase later this summer, Wilner said, ads will not only become far more numerous. They also will likely become more and more negative. "It will be pretty much all negative from the summer into the fall, and that will be the case for the outside groups that have taken pains to do some positive advertising lately," she said. And by the time all is said and done, you can expect viewers to be sick of all the ads, as is the case in any election cycle. "I think things will pretty much be as usual in terms of sort of what people are seeing and how people get swamped with ads," Wilner said.

Listen to the whole conversation here:

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