US political ad spend soars

02 November 2010

NEW YORK: The recent relaxation of rules governing political advertising has unleashed record levels of TV spending in the US mid-term elections.

According to Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group, (CMAG) the combined budget for political campaigns will top $3 billion (€2.1bn; £1.9bn) during this mid-term election period, while Borrell Associates has predicted spending will rise as high as $4.2 billion this year.

But the ubiquity of political ads is resulting in available airtime for brand campaigns being squeezed.

"I've been doing this for 20 years and I've never seen anything like this," said Evan Tracey, president of CMAG.

Last spring, the Supreme Court upended many of the former legal restrictions on political advertising, effectively giving political groups more time to plan their strategy and vastly increasing their fundraising powers.

With the rule barring such advertising within 60 days of an election no longer effective, third-party groups enjoy two more months of lobbying and are now allowed to be more overtly political in their ads.

According to Mr Tracey, naming candidates rather than focusing solely on issues makes fundraising easier.

Telling potential donors that your spot is going to talk about an energy bill and urge voters to call their representative doesn't open the wallet as easily as pitching an ad calling for a senator's head, he explained.

The trend has boosted TV, where the overwhelming bulk of the campaign money is being spent. 

But with dozens of third-party groups fighting it out for votes and support, TV markets across the country have become so saturated with political ads that inventory has all but dried up in some areas.

"Yes, there's definitely a lot of political advertising, and it does put a lot of pressure on your inventory. It's a bit of a juggling act. You have to manage it," said Vince Giannini, general manager of WPHL in Philadelphia, a MyNetwork affiliate owned by Tribune Co.

Citing some "rather big races in our area," he said political advertising had "affected a lot of dayparts," particularly news programmes.

While most stations in the area had "looked ahead" and sensed they would have a lot of demand at this time of year, and had begun to manage advertisers' expectations, that approach was not universal, Giannini added.

But TV stations can employ effective techniques to help manage their inventory when demand for political advertising is intense.

According to one TV-industry executive with oversight of local stations, some TV outlets will reduce the number of in-house promotions they run, or even add some additional commercial time going into the 11pm news broadcasts.

He believed that some stations already worked with long-term commercial clients ahead of time to ensure they had the inventory they needed.

Data sourced from AdAge; additional content by Warc staff