One of the states that will be at the heart of the coming TV ad spending storm is Virginia. It’s a target for the Obama campaign, which is looking to repeat the president’s 2008 success there. And in addition to its usual medley of competitive House races, it also plays host to one of the highest profile Senate races this cycle between former Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine and former Sen. George Allen (R).
Millions are expected to pour into the state’s media markets. TV ad buyers looking to get on, say, a small-market CBS affiliate in Virginia will be competing for about 1,100 weekly 30-second spots on its early and evening news programs, according to a rate card shown to C&E.
“It’s going to be the wild, wild West in terms of TV and media buying,” predicts John Rowley, a Democratic media buyer. Like Winn, Rowley sees the overflow going to, what until now, have been considered less efficient mediums. “I think we’ll definitely have a record setting year in terms of online,” says Rowley.
Online can certainly work as an alternative, says GOP media strategist Will Feltus. But Feltus argues that online is a way of preaching to the choir, not persuading voters. Rather, Feltus says, radio, which some politicos consider a medium akin to telegramming voters, will make a comeback in 2012.
“Radio gets you outside the clutter,” he says. “If I hear it on radio and then I see it on TV, maybe I don’t have to see it as often.”
Cable buys, he says, will also need to be deeper in order to make up the ratings points unavailable on broadcast. “You can replicate the audience on cable, but it’s a different kind of media buying,” he says. “Smart cable media buys go down 12 or 20 channels deep.”
Messaging will also be a challenge amid the cacophony of political advertising in 2012. There’s no doubt that targeted markets will see political spots sandwiched up against one another. Newscast station breaks with nothing but political messages will be the norm. The vast majority of these ads are expected to be negative – dark colors, deep voiceover, accusations of malfeasance. Voters will become desensitized and it’ll be a challenge for candidates to break through.
Rowley, who consultants for many House candidates, thinks campaigns can actually stand out more in this cycle’s environment by being upbeat. “Frankly, a candidate’s campaign lends itself to being positive.”
Using different creative techniques is another option. Strategists like Fred Davis have made careers out of producing ads that stand out. Davis produced the online “Demon Sheep” video for California Republican Carly Fiorina and the “danged fence” spot for Sen. John McCain in 2010 that generated national news. (The ad Davis produced for former Rep. Pete Hoekstra’s campaign recently made headlines for an altogether different reason, but it certainly stood out.)
Jon Vogel is one who thinks there’s no need to reinvent the wheel in 2012. “I think candidate-to-camera actually has a lot of impact when there’s a lot of studio garbage getting thrown around,” says Vogel, who consulted for House Majority PAC during its ad campaign in the 2011 New York special election that produced a surprise win for Democrat Kathy Hochul.
But for issue groups that must support or oppose in their messaging, there’s less room to distinguish the creative.
Getting a message heard is just one of the challenges for advertisers this cycle. Candidates face the added hurdle of weighing whether to join in with a super PAC that is attacking their opponent. Coordination, we know, is illegal but candidates can compound the message of a supportive Super PAC by mirroring its advertising.
“You almost have to pile of top of it,” says Rowley. “[Candidates and groups] see what the other is putting out on their website. It’s not really coordination so much as taking in the public information that’s available.”
Perhaps the best option for cutting through the crowded ideas marketplace is buying early. Conventional wisdom is that voters have a short attention span so buying early is an inefficient use of resources. Winn says that logic will flip in 2012 given the new landscape.
“Any money you spend in early September is going to go a lot further than in late October,” he says. The bottom line, he adds, is that “if you’re a candidate, you’re probably going to be alright. If you’re an issue group, you’re going to have to get more creative.”
Back in Pittsburgh, Cedric Thomas is preparing for the coming deluge. Groups and candidates aren’t booking yet for the fall—the GOP primary remains the focus—but Thomas is waiting for his phone to start ringing.
“They should probably book sooner than later,” he says about issue groups. “I have my rate card ready. We’re set.”
Sean J. Miller is a contributing editor to Campaigns & Elections.