Expressing disgust for political-campaign ads in the early days of television, the eloquent Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson disdainfully drew a distinction between consumer and political ads. "I think the American people will be shocked by such contempt for their intelligence. This isn't Ivory Soap versus Palmolive," said Stevenson, who favored lengthy discussion-style presentations and debates. That was half a century ago. These days, virtually the only imaginable candidate likely to profess such highbrow protestations would have been Josiah Bartlet, the fictional president on NBC's West Wing.
During the last half-century, TV ads have emerged as a valuable tool in the strategies of campaigns from the federal level all the way down the ticket. Some, such as the "Bear in the Woods" and "Morning in America" ads aired by Ronald Reagan in 1984, have set the winning spirit for campaigns. Others, such as in the 1988 contest between Democrat Michael Dukakis and Republican Vice President George H.W. Bush, have "tanked" a whole campaign. The Willie Horton ad produced by Floyd Brown during that campaign may have been controversial, but it was the image of Dukakis in George Patton headgear pretending to be a tank driver that made his credibility on national-security issues evaporate.
Like a winning campaign strategy, says Edward Baches of Mullen Advertising, a good marketing plan efficiently mixes and matches the media expenditures and the available dollars. "Television advertising is still in many ways the most effective, most impactful, most powerful means of winning the hearts and minds of your consumer," says Baches, who notes the "visceral" qualities of TV ads allow companies to reach a large number of people in a short amount of time. "You can convey a significantly greater amount of emotion behind your brand and your message because you have the power of drama, humor, music imagery, etc. You're never going to get that online, in print, in direct mail," Baches adds.
If current figures are any gauge, the new reality is not lost on the political class. According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, in 1956 (a time when hearings were held to examine "the alarming costs of television campaign ads") GOP presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower and Democrat Stevenson spent $2.9 million and $1.8 million, respectively, on broadcast time.
This year, according to the Wisconsin Advertising Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, more than $25 million has been spent on TV advertising since Labor Day in the 13 most competitive Senate contests. Although Republicans hold a money edge over Democrats, the expenditures are split almost evenly with $12.9 million in GOP ads and $12.5 million in ads paid for by Democratic campaigns, party committees and interest groups.
Contrary to popular perception, most of the ads are not negative or disparaging. According to a University of Wisconsin study, one-third of Democratic Party ads aired in the 2000 presidential contest attacked George W. Bush, while only one in five Republican Party ads attacked Al Gore. An analysis conducted by the Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG) found the majority of spots run by the respective campaigns were positive or comparative.
"So far, there has not been a more negative trend, but I reserve the right to change my statement two weeks from now," says Evan Tracey of the Virginia-based CMAG, which has been examining ads since 1996. "The one difference I would point to is that, in more contentious races, candidates have done a lot to inoculate themselves on issues. A number of Republican candidates have voted for a prescription-drug bill or on Social Security," he says. And the attack ads have a more personal slant, Tracey adds, sometimes with a focus on individual stock holdings or tax filings. "Ultimately the playbook strategy says spend until Labor Day defining who you are, defining your opponent a little bit and trying to drive a wedge on issues. …