World: Stuart Elliott in America

As election day in America nears, advertising has become an intrinsic element of the final blitzes by the two parties to push their presidential candidates across the finish line.

As the days dwindle down to a precious few, to quote Kurt Weill's September Song, the Democrats and Republicans are concentrating their massive war chests - the largest ever in US history - on TV commercials in fewer and fewer places. A new study by the Advertising Project at the University of Wisconsin estimates that 27 per cent of the electorate is being exposed to 87 per cent of the political pitches, an unprecedented narrowing of target audiences.

The reason? The fuzzy math required to take up residency in the White House. Though Americans vote directly for the president, the total popular vote is secondary to the results in the Electoral College, where 270 of 538 votes are needed for victory. The popular vote determines who carries each state's electoral votes, but as in 2000, the winner of the popular vote can lose if his opponent exceeds the magic number 270.

With so many states seemingly settled for one candidate or another - in the now-familiar dichotomy of "red" for Republican and "blue" for Democratic - the outcome of this oh-so-close fight is coming down to the results in a handful of "battleground" or "swing" states. The political consultants who produce virtually all the ads (there's little participation by Madison Avenue any more) are working frantically to figure out which buttons to press to drive their supporters to the polls - and maybe keep the other guy's supporters away.

So residents of some of the biggest states with the most electoral votes, such as California, New York and Texas, are seeing little to no advertising because their "colours" are almost certain. Meanwhile, some of the smallest states with the least electoral votes, such as Iowa, New Mexico and Nevada, are seeing enough advertising to launch a zillion FMCG brands.

In fact, the project, using data from Nielsen Monitor-Plus, found that just ten of the 50 states are bearing the brunt of the advertising storm.

Others have higher estimates that go way, way, way up - to 14.

"The end-game of this advertising battle is now purely about reaching the 270 Electoral College votes needed," professor Ken Goldstein, the project's director, says, "and focusing resources on the handful of states where the result remains in any doubt."

It's an odd way to market a brand, but then peddling candidates like soap or soup is an American tradition that dates back to the Dwight Eisenhower era, when the legendary adman Rosser Reeves persuaded Ike that it wasn't undignified to appear in his own commercials.

In fact, it was the first Eisenhower campaign, in1952, that set the tone for what followed. For a series of spots called "Eisenhower answers America", Eisenhower's answers were filmed first, then voters were recruited on the streets of Manhattan to ask questions that would fit the replies.

Imagine what would become of a product daring to do that.

I started writing "In America" four years ago, during one presidential campaign, and it ends now during another. Sorry to say, this is my final column, but I've had a great time. Thanks to all you wonderful readers and to the Campaign staff.


Become a member of Campaign

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to, plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events.

Become a member

What is Campaign AI?

Our new premium service offering bespoke monitoring reports for your company.

Find out more

Looking for a new job?

Get the latest creative jobs in advertising, media, marketing and digital delivered directly to your inbox each day.

Create an alert now

Partner content