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In high-tech world, candidates still turn to TV

Will shell out $800m on ads, analysts predict

Email|Print| Text size + By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / December 6, 2007

Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama gained early attention and buzz with viral videos, the unsanctioned online ads that seemed to herald a new era for political campaigns. There was the unsolicited love song "Obama Girl" and the "1984" spoof of Hillary Clinton's campaign, widely covered by the news media and heralded as ironic and savvy and modern.

But the Obama campaign itself has taken a more conventional approach to mass media, airing millions of dollars worth of television ads, mostly in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire. And as the primary campaign enters its final stretch, TV advertising is becoming as ubiquitous as ever. Even Ron Paul, the renegade Republican who has run a vigorous online campaign, is airing five ads in New Hampshire.

It goes to show that even in the Internet age, there's no substitute for the standard TV spot or the old-fashioned airwaves. Candidates for office at all levels and third-party groups are expected to spend $3 billion nationwide this season on television ads, nearly double what was spent in 2004, said Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of TNS Media Intelligence/Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks ad spending by candidates and third parties. In this cycle, Tracey's company has said, presidential candidates are poised to spend more than $800 million on TV ads. And Tracey said many of them started advertising in prime time earlier than in past presidential cycles.

Through early November, campaigns aired nearly 32,000 ads, more than 5,700 of them in New Hampshire, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus.

TNS said presidential candidates and third-party groups spent more than $49 million on TV ads through September and are poised to spend more than $100 million before February.

In New Hampshire, TV viewers have been inundated with ads this fall, said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire whose blog, graniteprof.typepad.com, tracks ad spending on TV station WMUR. By Thanksgiving week, Scala said, Democrats - led by Obama - spent nearly $3.1 million on WMUR, while Republicans, led by Mitt Romney, spent nearly $3.2 million.

Internet advertising expenses for each candidate, meanwhile, are a fraction of overall advertising budgets. People who view campaign-related videos online tend to be activists who are already committed, not swing voters looking to make up their minds, Tracey said. Undecided voters, he said, "still need to be, in essence, driven to the slaughter by the loud hum of 30-second spots."

Of course, the broadcast ads also have a second life. The campaigns post them online the moment they hit the airwaves, so they circulate virtually, increasing their reach. A recent ad from Republican Mike Huckabee, capitalizing on his endorsement from martial arts expert Chuck Norris, swiftly made the viral-video rounds last month. ("There's no chin behind Chuck Norris's beard," Huckabee tells the camera in deadpan. "Only another fist.")

Still, the Huckabee ad, self-mocking and self-aware, was largely an exception. At a time when businesses are creating increasingly unconventional TV ads - using humor, music video techniques, and slick production quality to capture viewers' attention - the current crop of presidential ads generally doesn't break new creative ground. Obama's and Romney's ads are filled with clips from speeches and testimonials from erudite supporters. Clinton's often features shots of the candidate interacting with voters as a male voice speaks the tagline: "If you're ready for change, she's ready to lead."

"If we change the names of these major candidates, any one of them could read any one of the spots," said Patrick Griffin, a Republican political consultant who is not affiliated with a campaign this cycle.

And while Paul has been seen as a renegade and Internet innovator, his TV ads - with bare-bones production values - still carry standard political tropes. Paul often speaks to the camera against the backdrop of the Constitution.

When it comes to ads, "the political industry is still stuck back in the 1970s in terms of figuring out what works and what doesn't," said Bill Hillsman, a Minnesota political consultant who created offbeat, eye-catching ads for such candidates as the late senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and former governor Jesse Ventura of Minnesota. (He was the man behind the animated "heads up" ads for Christy Mihos's 2006 gubernatorial campaign.)

Presidential campaigns, Hillsman said, "still subscribe to this notion that if you just repeat the message long enough, you can somehow annoy somebody into voting for your candidate."

But many campaigns say the traditional campaign ad still works, and the proof is in the polls. Jennifer Psaki, Obama spokeswoman, said her campaign has made headway in the polls with its straightforward ads, which focus on the candidate's biography and position, rather than on humor or cinematic flourishes.

"We don't feel we have to pull a rabbit out of a hat," Psaki said. "We just feel that we need to introduce him to as many voters as we can."

And the Romney camp credits a huge outlay on advertising - about $8.6 million by early October, more than double that of the next biggest spender - with raising his national profile.

"Romney is really approaching his ad buys as if he were the challenger," spending increasing amounts of money to try to avoid slippage in the polls, Scala said.

The Romney campaign said that money has been well spent. At the start of the race, rivals Rudy Giuliani and John McCain had near-universal name recognition, while "Romney was not very well known nationally," said Kevin Madden, Romney spokesman. "So in order to overcome that challenge, we had to begin a very aggressive introduction phase."

Still, that strategy is risky, Griffin said: If you lead in the polls a couple of months before Election Day, "there is nowhere else to go but down."

The burst of TV ads seems to have given the YouTube renegades even more material. One animated spoof, uploaded to the site, mocks Fred Thompson's Hollywood background, showing different "takes" of a campaign message. And someone recently took a traditional-looking Romney ad about national security and overlaid it with a laugh track.

"That's an old trick," Hillsman said. "That goes back to, like, Kennedy and Nixon."

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, a story on yesterday's Campaign 2008 pages about presidential campaigns' television ads gave an incorrect number from graniteprof.typepad.com, a website that tracks ad spending. The correct amount of money Democratic candidates have spent on New Hampshire's WMUR-TV is nearly $3.5 million from January 2007 through Thanksgiving week.

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