Thursday, July 27, 2006

Ruminations on Campaign Advertising

In the original Manchurian Candidate, Raymond Shaw, played by Laurence Harvey, says:

"Have you noticed that the human race is divided into two distinct, irreconcilable groups? Those who walk into rooms and automatically turn television sets on, and those who walk into rooms and automatically turn them off. You know, the problem is, they usually marry each other."
This has certainly proven true in my life. I am the former, while my wife is the latter. I'm trying to moderate my viewing habits, but more often than not the television ends up on in our house, if only as background noise.

You would think that with the TV on so frequently, I would be inundated with campaign ads from Kerry Healey, Tom Reilly, and Chris Gabrieli, the three candidates for governor who have gone on the air. Certainly, in May it felt like I couldn't turn my head without seeing Gabrieli on TV. Still, the thing of it is, I've hardly seen any of them. I think I've seen them more often on the news being discussed than when they actually paid for them to be shown.

Maybe it's because it's summer and I'm going outside more, or because there's absolutely nothing worth watching. I think that's part of it. It's harder to predict what people are going to be watching when everything on is crap. (Again, my wife disagrees.) Still, it got me thinking about the future of campaign advertising.

It used to be that there were only a handful of channels, so buying ads was easy. Now, there are hundreds of channels, so the audience is more diluted. While most individual network shows beat any individual cable show in the ratings, when taken as a whole, cable is a significant portion of the viewing audience. The advantage, of course, of this dilution is that you can target your ads to specific groups by advertising on a station that caters to them. This was something that President Bush did in 2004, but I don't think any of the gubernatorial candidates have attempted in Massachusetts.

The other thing that may change political advertisements is the change in the way we get our TV. For instance, as Digital Video Recorders (DVRs) like TiVo or on-demand services become more popular or more people start getting their TV shows over the Internet or on their iPods, it's going to become more difficult for candidates to reach viewers. Product advertisers don't necessarily have the same difficulties, because they can always partner with content providers. For instance, The Apprentice is just an hour long commercial for Donald Trump and whatever sponsor the contestants have to shill for that week. A candidate does not have the luxury of product placement, unless he or she goes on talk shows. The way to stop people from fast-forwarding through your ad is to make it more interesting. From what I've seen so far, the candidates here have a lot to work on in that regard.

One of the more innovative things a candidate has done with media so far this year was when Democratic Lieutenant Governor Candidate Andrea Silbert posted her campaign video on Comcast's On Demand in July. I'm curious as to how many people actually watched it. It reportedly only cost the campaign $3,900 -- a tiny fraction of what a real media buy would cost -- and I wonder what the final cost-per-viewer ratio turned out to be. My hunch is that few people bothered to watch, but perhaps as on-demand services become more widespread more candidates will turn to this method.

Don't get me wrong, TV ad buys are still a huge part of any political campaign. In the future, though, the candidates who first adapt to technology changes will have the advantage.