TV ads are the key battlefield in White House war

As an epic US presidential contest nears its climax, TV ads have become a vital medium to reach voters, Ann Cooper says.

US election...TV ads are crucial
US election...TV ads are crucial

By anyone's reckoning, this year's US presidential election is turning into one of the most exciting ever.

Aside from the unprecedented length of the pre-election battle between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination, involving the first ever ascendancy of both a woman and a black man, Obama has caused a political upheaval by forgoing the usual quota of public funding.

Instead, he is relying on raising funds himself.

Not only does this mean that he'll have far more money than Senator John McCain to shell out on advertising, but he also hopes to extend the number of battleground states in contention between the two.

McCain, on the other hand, limited to $85 million in public money during the campaign's last two months, will be forced to pick his advertising spots more carefully, and will try to contain the number of battleground states.

The ad battle is already turning nasty. The McCain camp has aired commercials attacking Obama as caring more about going to the gym than meeting the military, while another has compared him to celebrities such as Britney Spears.

Forecasters reckon that total spending on TV ads in the presidential race will top $800 million, $300 million more than in the 2004 race. "You adjust your last campaign plan for inflation, which means you have a longer campaign cycle and more money," Evan Tracey, the founder and chief operating officer of Campaign Media Analysis Group, a TNS Media Intelligence company, says.

"Because of US campaign finance laws, there's a built-in increase in the maximum donation year over year. And when you raise more money, you spend more on the largest line item: advertising and media. With Obama forgoing public financing, his only limitation will be how much he can raise."

Tactically, Tracey says, Obama will try to use his financial position to extend the final battleground states. "We've had this cycle in the last few elections in which it comes down to what happens in 12 or 15 states," he explains. "Obama is trying to extend that battleground into the mid- to high-20s. If he can do that, then it plays to his cash advantage, because he can then cover more ground."

Obama has bought airtime in Republican states such as Alaska and Indiana, in an attempt to force McCain to defend states he would have taken for granted.

Even in the YouTube era, TV ads are still the best way to reach voters directly, experts say. TV ads also influence news coverage and are frequently replayed during newscasts. And while this is good news for TV stations, only those media outlets in the battleground states in contention will benefit.

On the Obama side, the political consultant David Axelrod is the campaign manager, while the execution will be down to the political agency GMMB. McCain's chief strategist is Rick Davis.

Tracey says: "The advantage for Obama is they're going to have money to make some mistakes. They can try more things with the internet and in targeted states, while McCain will have to run one of the most efficient campaigns in history, in terms of where and how he spends."

Yet another titillating factor in American elections is the influence of pro-McCain or pro-Obama independent groups that raise money, create ads and try to influence the election results. In 2004, the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth more or less torpedoed the presidential campaign of Senator John Kerry via ads questioning his service in Vietnam.

This year, Obama has Moveon.org going to bat for him, headed by the former McCann Worldgroup creative director Jonathan Cranin. Cranin has enlisted the aid of other Madison Avenue experts, such as Ernest Lupinacci, formerly of Anomaly and now of Ernest Industries. They liken themselves to The Tuesday Team that helped Ronald Reagan win the White House.

"Each of these so-called independent groups is going to be disruptive," Tracey comments. "The official campaign can't talk to them, so they have to operate independently and can run ads and messages the campaign can't and so don't have to deal with the negative consequences."

Cranin says he has assembled a network of top consumer advertising people. "We work together to do the overall thinking and strategising about the larger issues," he explains. "When it comes to execution, that has to be done so quickly and I've got some really good strategic planners. I have a strong point of view about tonality and the messaging this should take."

Moveon.org recently released a TV spot called "not Alex", created by Cranin, which has already created a stir. It features a mother with a baby boy named Alex sitting on her lap, sending a message to McCain about his controversial comments concerning America's involvement in Iraq for 100 years. While "not Alex" did not sit well with Republicans, it scored highly with Democrats and independents, according to a recent survey.

"It was the highest testing commercial Moveon.org has produced in 12 years and it made the rounds of all political news shows," Cranin says. "Republicans said using a woman with baby was a low blow, but it got under the skin."

Meanwhile, a conservative group called Citizens United has also released a TV ad in which a mix of conservative voices accuse the press of harbouring a pro-Obama bias, and another group, Vets for Freedom, is spending $1.5 million on ads that trumpet the success of the troop build-up in Iraq.

Whoever finally wins the presidency in November, one thing is certain: America will certainly have had its fill of political ads for a while.