Tuesday, July 21, 2009

What’s Still to Come in the Evolution of Political TV Ads?

Part 5 of our 10-part series: “21st Century Campaigning”

The presidential race in 2008 saw some of the most effective campaign ads ever seen on television. They incorporated most of the important developments in political advertising of the past 50 years - and even went a step or two further.

The Evolution of Political TV Ads

1952 - The Birth of Campaign TV Spots

In Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first ad - “Ike for President” - the WWII General’s campaign began the new tactic of television spots for a political campaign.

1964 - Hitting the Heart

Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, television ads were mostly fairly boring and certainly not too controversial. Then President Lyndon Johnson’s campaign produced “Daisy” - the Pandora’s Box of (truly) negative ads. It was so controversial that it only played once, but the impact it had on campaign ads to follow has never gone away.

1968 - The Daisy Effect Lives On

Former Vice President Nixon spots this similar - thought certainly not as vivid - negative ad, attacking the Democrats for their handling of the Vietnam War.

1976 - Targeting by Media Market

In his first Presidential campaign, Jimmy Carter produced a region-specific ad to drive votes in the American South. This attention to particular audiences in particular media markets served as a precursor to the later micro-targeting techniques of Karl Rove and others.

1980 - Making Ads “Issue-Based”

Believe it or not, political ads are more substantive than they’ve ever been before. In fact, only about two-thirds of campaign ads in the 1950s were issue-based rather than “image-based” - compared to about 85% issue-based and 15% image-based by 2004.

Here, in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 “Podium” ad, we see the development of flashy, short and simple campaign ads that still stay issue-based.

1984 - Making Ads Memorable

The most effective campaign TV spots are those that voters can’t help but remember. In this re-election ad, “Prouder, Stronger, Better” (better known as the “Morning in America” ad) Reagan’s campaign produced a masterpiece.

It has all the great images - patriotic symbols, young children, senior citizens, workers, dogs, even a wedding - all of which (some for still uncertain reasons) are brilliant and highly effective for campaign ads. All the while it maintains an issue-based message of economic improvement.

1988 - Divide and Conquer

In George H.W. Bush’s first campaign, Lee Atwater became the first political consultant to be a household name. Although the Bush campaign itself didn’t run it, Atwater was the man behind the infamous “Willy Horton” ad, as well as the equally well-known “Revolving Door” spot.

The tactics were innovative for two reasons. First, they were more negative than ever before. While that should have hurt the Bush campaign (which it did to an extent) it made the campaign’s message look more factual than the rosy pictures presented by Reagan and Carter in the ads above. Second, they used the divisive issue of crime in a way that they could bring in more mainstream Americans than they risked to lose. Never before had the “50% + 1” strategy been so evident.

1992 - Campaigns Decide to “Prove It”

Bill Clinton’s campaign might not have invented this idea, but they used it extremely well: citing your sources. They made it commonplace to back-up claims with quotes (or at least a source and date) from respected newspapers.

1996 - The Contrast Ad

It had been seen before, but again, not to this extent. In his re-election campaign, President Clinton continually framed his arguments in a way that compared himself to his opponent - all the while sounding fair and fact-driven - and casting his opponent as untrustworthy by making his image grainy as well as black and white.

Beyond the images and citations, they typically stayed specific to one issue at a time and could easily be targeted towards specific demographics (in the case below, mothers and young voters).

2008 - Putting it All Together

It’s not difficult to see for yourself how these developments influenced campaign ads in the 2008 election.

Adapting to Change

Campaigns have traditionally spent time, money, and effort producing political ads as a way to introduce a candidate’s message to otherwise uninterested voters - those who don’t pay much attention to the news or the political community. It serves a powerful purpose to bring that message into the home, connecting with these voters in an intimate and personal way.

But like most tactics, the technological developments of the 21st Century are forcing campaigns to rethink how and why they do political TV ads. One problem is what New York Times writer Stuart Elliot calls “The TiVo Challenge.”

From an article he wrote last year:

"Most of the people who are watching ads online are political junkies who've already made up their minds," says Tobe Berkowitz, a communications professor at Boston University. "The reason the candidates still buy a lot of TV ads is that it reaches people who don't pay a lot of attention to the campaign."

But that doesn't mean the Internet and other new technologies aren't changing the rules of the game. One challenge for the 2008 campaigns is how to deal with technology like TiVo that allows viewers to skip the commercials.

"Private-sector companies can do product-placement; candidates can't do that," says Dan Schnur, a professor of political science and communications at the University of Southern California. "You're not going to see Barack Obama fighting terrorists with Jack Bauer. You're not going to see John McCain on So You Think You Can Dance."

These challenges may signal the end of TV's long dominance in campaign advertising. "I think this might be the last big presidential cycle where you see these huge amounts of money spent on television," Berkowitz says. "In another four years, who knows what it will be."

According to some, not only is the dominance of TV ads at risk in campaign politics, but their entire existence is as well.

As Chuck Todd wrote of the “lessons learned” in the 2008 campaign:

“TV ads are overrated: had it not been for the sheer saturation of the television airwaves Obama’s financial advantage allowed him, 2008 might have been known as the year the 30 second TV ad died. It’s becoming more and more difficult for political TV ads to be ‘sticky,’ so good as to be remembered by voters for a period of time…Campaigns need to diversify their attempts at branding beyond the 30 second spot unless they truly have unlimited resources, like Obama.”

If you’re a political junkie, however, don’t worry - we don’t think the 30 second political ad is going to be extinct any time soon. The reason is simple: supporters would think it disastrous to their candidate’s chances of winning.

Throughout this series, we’ve mentioned how little beats voter-to-voter contact in spreading a campaign’s message and winning support. That means candidates have to rely on volunteers to make phone calls and canvass neighborhoods, as well as hopeful donors to finance it all. And just like the disappearance of yard signs would scare a campaign’s donors and volunteers, so would the disappearance of TV spots in a national, statewide, or even congressional election.

So campaigns may need to begin a new strategy of utilizing television ads for a new purpose: encouraging their supporters.

What’s to Come in Political TV Advertising

One prediction is that more campaign ads will be produced, but perhaps seen less on television. With the online age, more and more ads will be emailed, blogged, and seen on YouTube than TV. It will be a more cost effective way to communicate with supporters that expect to see an operational campaign producing ads.

Additionally, ads will become higher-quality and more rapidly produced. Their relevance will be short lived, created for the purpose of encouraging supporters who are living in the day-to-day news of the race.

Take these two ads that addressed concerns from the final debate in the 2008 presidential election - namely, the connection between Sen. John McCain and President George W. Bush. If you remember, McCain landed a memorable line: “Sen. Obama, I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago.” McCain’s ad also addressed the “spreading the wealth around” quote which he raised in the debate when discussing Joe the Plumber.

As we said in a post the day these ads were released (the day immediately following the debate), “You know that technology is pretty incredible when you can watch a debate that ends at 9:30 PM and see brand-new post-debate presidential campaign ads by 9:30 AM the next day.” Clearly, there is a real purpose behind that strategy.

Finally, we saw in 2008 a possible preview of a dramatic innovation of campaign ads in years to come. In late October, just before GOTV operations began, the Obama campaign released a thirty-minute ad known as the Obama Infomercial. It cost them $3 million to air it on seven major networks, all at 8:00 PM.

As many noted at the time, apathetic voters could easily change the channel - making the efficacy of the ad questionable. Even Jim Margolis, Mr. Obama’s senior advertising strategist, said “Many people have 150 channels; they’ve got plenty of other choices.”

But the infomercial probably wasn’t for the average voter as much as it was for the supporter. Obama had an army of donors and volunteers - millions of them - who all tuned-in to watch the much-talked-about infomercial and become extra-motivated before signing up to knock on doors and make calls for Get-Out-the-Vote weekend.

And if the public financing of elections dissipates - as we suspect it will - and you can raise upwards of $1 billion, then why not put $3 million into an infomercial to boost your volunteer program and increase voter outreach?

So, in presidential elections at least, expect campaigns to target supporters more and more with their TV ads; expect these ads to be more and more congruent with the life of the campaign; and expect political TV advertising to continue - and to evolve even more.

Coming Friday: campaign PR in the 21st Century.

1 comment:

Jason Haas said...

That my be among the most interesting and accessible posts I've read on this blog. Well done! It was curious to watch some of the ads as well. Though I was around in the 80s, I was a young child and don't remember either of Reagan's ads. I've heard of the "morning in America" spot though. And it was so strange to see a Clinton ad saying "George Bush has had the worst economic record of any president in the past 50 years"... which race was this? Which Bush was this? I guess Dubya really did out-do his dad, though probably not as he wanted to.