On Jan. 16, 1929, former New York Governor Alfred E. Smith addressed a nationwide radio audience. He asked supporters for donations to help the Democratic Party retire the debt from his unsuccessful Presidential campaign in 1928. Smith’s Lower East Side accent had hurt him, yet the reports were that this speech was received enthusiastically around the nation. Like direct-response infomercials, donors of $2 or more received a special gift, Smith’s autobiography, Up to Now.
When asked to comment on his predecessor’s speech, Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “I hope to goodness there will be a fine response.” F.D.R. was making his own broadcast that night, thanking Tammany Hall for putting him over the top in the ’28 gubernatorial election. F.D.R. had a vision for radio: He anticipated the medium’s power, realizing that he could get facts directly to the people in counties where the editors weren’t sympathetic to his views. While F.D.R. mined these votes, which Smith had conceded in 1928, neither employed professional political consultants.
Today, New York’s candidates spend most of their campaign money on television advertising. While the tone of these ads is subject to debate, whither their placement? Do you read about campaign ads without ever seeing them on TV? That’s because while campaign commercials are running on targeted programs, most of us are just watching television. These days, that means flipping from program to program. But when you change channels, your demographic profile doesn’t change; you’re still you. Accordingly, why do campaigns pay lots of money to reach you while watching specific programs when you’re just watching TV? Prospects aren’t less desirable while watching lower-rated shows.
Unlike other advertisers, however, political candidates pay for their commercial schedules before the commercials air. Candidates pay the lowest prices for TV time in shows of their choice, but they choose the most expensive programs—programs that are annually bid up by the competitive spending of auto companies, movie studios, telecommunications and investment companies, gaming destinations and the rest.
In New York City, political ads appear in commercial breaks that reach millions of nonvoters outside the city. Despite the overwhelming presence of all forms of cable and satellite, the majority of candidates’ TV dollars are spent on highly expensive broadcast television. That can’t be the most efficient use of campaign TV dollars: 60 percent of New York City’s broadcast TV audience is outside the five boroughs! Those viewers can’t vote for municipal candidates.
Political ads are bought so that the commercials don’t get pre-empted by higher-paying advertisers. This assures the campaign’s media consultant maximum commissions—consultants take a percentage of every ad they place. Accordingly, advertisers who get pre-empted for political ads are re-expressed into other programs and frequently get more total viewers for their dollar. Whether or not they like to admit it, most advertisers buy their audience as a commodity, per thousand viewers, measured in demographic cells using Nielsen ratings as currency. Stations must have paid advertisers to fill every single ad available in every TV show every day. Political advertisers, however, stick to buying a short list of programs. The political buyer gets no audience assurance.
When the famous nuclear-themed commercial “Daisy,” a pro–Lyndon Johnson spot that questioned Barry Goldwater’s fitness for the Presidency, aired on NBC News during the 1964 Presidential campaign, TV had a captive audience. “Daisy” had a rating of 15.7—and whether one saw the ad on NBC or the spin it got on other stations, it snowballed awareness of its message more quickly than could ever happen today. At that time, it was reasonable to think that people near you on the street, on mass transit or on the highway knew the commercial.
Today, because of the proliferation of cable, satellite and everything else, the three network news programs don’t always combine for that 15.7 rating. A plethora of programming has sliced broadcast television’s audience in half, preventing candidates’ ads from effectively reaching voters in the weeks before an election. Today, candidates’ ad buyers perceive a 4 rating as a high number.
All these years later, the “Daisy” ad is still memorable. Which current commercials can we now reliably remember—indeed, how many of us actually see those expensive political ads?
Just as radio changed the way candidates reached potential voters, cable and satellite have superseded broadcast TV. Political consultants, however, have been slow to adapt to this change, just as Al Smith couldn’t adapt to radio. F.D.R., on the other hand, made the medium his own.
Back in those days, everyone voted. With today’s consultants spending millions on television, no one votes. Perhaps citizens have concluded, given today’s cost per vote, that candidates should just pass out cash. After all, they see candidates spending millions reaching voters who can’t vote for them. Why not just hand out the money to the people who actually can vote?
If nothing else, it would improve turnout.
Follow Billy Sternberg via RSS.