When television campaign commercials evolved from public-service announcements to robust communications during the 1960 Kennedy campaign, politics was transformed forever.
When television campaign commercials evolved from public-service announcements to robust communications during the 1960 Kennedy campaign, politics was transformed forever. Broadcast television advertising became—and remains—the dominant medium in transmitting information to the public. It moves polling numbers fast by intruding on the largest number of voters with the least demand for interaction—all at the lowest per-capita cost. Other media may aspire to the political communications throne, but broadcast television is the once and future king. In large 1960s campaigns, radio continued to play a supportive role as a guerilla warfare medium. Together with direct mail, it remains a dominant force for campaigns in small parts of media markets where television is prohibitively expensive. By the 1980s, cable television had captured enough eyeballs to reduce broadcast television’s audience share by more than 15 points, which helped cause campaigns to make ever-larger buys to compete for the attention of a shrinking viewership. For the same reason, television buys increased again with the rise of the Internet. By the end of the 1990s, campaign websites that mirrored the television campaign became ubiquitous, and by 2004, the Internet was the Next Big Thing. Many believe that Obama rode to victory in 2008 due to his savvy use of new media and communications technology. Indeed, his was the first campaign to exploit Internet advertising and social media on a massive scale—everything from Google search terms and banner ads to YouTube videos, social networking, Twitter, text message and e-mail blasts and interactive websites were fully integrated into all aspects of the campaign. In actuality, Obama relied greatly on the same medium that propelled Kennedy to victory. Beginning with the Iowa caucuses, where he was on the air for more than twenty weeks at a high level, he spent heavily on television advertising throughout the campaign. Major investments in broadcast television helped feed Obama’s Internet fundraising and new technology communications, ultimately fueling the largest media campaign in political history. New technology is definitely a boon to political communication, but Internet ads, like radio and cable ads, simply cannot reach the masses that broadcast television can. In addition, the Internet is a “pull” medium, requiring a user’s interest and participation. Internet ads certainly increase frequency, but they have difficulty reaching beyond political junkies who are actively following campaigns and seeking information about them. Broadcast television, on the other hand, intrudes on voters and pushes information on them—reaching broadly, while targeting frequency to specific demographics. The overarching campaign narrative, issue positions and candidate quality are undoubtedly the most important factors in political communications. But let’s face it—if your campaign doesn’t reach the right number of the right types of voters with the right frequency, the results will not be pretty. Political campaign targeting requires survey research and analysis of past election results to transmit each message to the right voters. Targeting television is not so much a matter of reach—most broadcast campaigns will quickly rise above 90 percent—but of which voters should receive which messages with higher frequency. Likewise, when you add direct mail and cable, radio and Internet ads, you are not extending reach; you are increasing the frequency of specific messages within small areas or narrow demographic categories. How much a campaign should spend on communications is determined by several factors, including media market size, how many different messages the campaign wants to transmit and the total funds available. Generally, more than half of a campaign’s budget should go to communications—though in larger, more expensive markets, it can command up to three quarters of the total budget, with as much as 80 percent of the media budget going to television. In down-ballot races covering small portions of expensive markets, of course, broadcast television may be an unrealistic option, restricting campaigns to cable, Internet and direct mail. In addition to reach and frequency, the primary measure of media campaign size is GRPs (Gross Rating Points). Every spot your campaign runs on broadcast television will reach a certain portion of the audience—expressed as Rating Points—a single time. So, a program watched by 5 percent of a demographic group, such as adults over eighteen or women thirty-five to fifty-five, will have a 5 rating in that demo, and one that is watched by 16 percent of a group will have a 16 rating in that demo. Add up all the commercials that play in a week, in a given market, and you have your GRPs. Generally speaking, a modest campaign of 500 GRPs on television will, on average, reach about 95 percent of viewers five times each, and a large campaign of 1,500 GRPs will, on average, reach perhaps 98 percent of viewers fifteen times each. Because the viewers of different programs have different demographic profiles, you can narrowcast a given message to a specific demographic by placing ads on specific programs and time periods. Alternatively, you can employ “divergence” by placing a variety of messages in all time periods and on every station, which means you will reach a broader audience including all likely voters. Different phases of a campaign call for different approaches to advertising. Early on, you may want to focus your messaging on a smaller group of engaged voters. For instance, you could buy 250 GRPs targeted to high-information voters by placing ads alongside the daily news and the Sunday morning news programs as well as on cable news and even radio news stations. This would achieve a frequency above 10 among the targeted voters, with a reach of less than 20. In a fund-raising push, a candidate might place ads on a single cable news network that agrees with their politics, yielding just a 2 reach, but a very high frequency among hardcore partisans most likely to donate. In the first weeks of your media campaign, you might run a single introductory biographical spot or a single issue spot. In this case, running 500 GRPs a week on broadcast television might be enough, especially if the spot runs longer than a week. Though hiatuses can be useful early in a campaign when money is scarce, as Election Day nears it is important to be on the air continuously and heavily. In the final weeks of a competitive campaign, you will need to run a number of different messages: several issue spots, an attack and/or response ad, and, in the final days, a GOTV spot. Giving each spot enough frequency may require 1500 to 1800 GRPs or even more. Ads on important issues or conveying complicated messages will need to be supplemented with direct mail drops, radio spots and Internet advertising all hammering home the same points. The difficulty of your race will determine how many weeks you need to spend on the air and the total number of GRPs you need to buy. A well-liked incumbent running for re-election against a nominal, underfunded opponent will clearly not require much of a communications effort. A challenger running for the first time in a highly competitive race, on the other hand, might need ten or maybe even twenty weeks of broadcast television averaging over 1500 GRPs with lots of supporting radio, cable and Internet ads as well as targeted direct mail, phone calls to potential voters and even outdoor billboards added in the final weeks. It is hard to imagine what new communications options will be offered to campaigns by the next wave of advances in media and technology. Whatever their nature, however, the unparalleled reach and impact of broadcast television means that it will continue to dominate campaign media strategies—and budgets—for the foreseeable future. Joseph Mercurio is president of National Political Services and has been a political consultant for over thirty years