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The Ad Game: How To Sway 7% Of The Voters Through Razzmatazz. : Impact: It's where advertising runs that counts.

October 28, 1990|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe is a senior associate of the Center for Politics and Policy at the Claremont Graduate School

Television executives who do lunch and nervously watch the overnights are using some hot new buzzwords this season. Media moguls and industry researchers are heavy into "fragmentation" and "niche programming." And--for better or worse--political campaigning is dependent on media. So candidates, pundits, voters and reporters had better pay attention, too.

It may be that, in the debate over the use of mass media in election campaigns, critics and reformers have been ignoring a key point. They have concerned themselves with the impact of negative ads and of the high cost of television time needed to air them. But, as one veteran television executive argued, the question of where candidates put their advertising may be as important as how much it costs and what it looks like.

As of last year, half of U. S. households could choose from more than 30 TV channels. With so many selections, the viewing audience has become fragmented, each segment reflecting different characteristics, interests, and lifestyles.

That's where niche programming comes in. As a recent Times article explained it, "Niche programming works this way: Think small. Spend less. Find your place in television's universe with very specific programs, for . . . very specific, dedicated viewers."

Let's look at what that means, "politics-wise."

California has seen this year's gubernatorial campaigns driven by the need for candidates to raise gargantuan amounts of money, largely to advertise on commercial television.

The irony is that, while campaigns continue to be media-driven, the intensity of media's impact may have lessened. Fragmentation, niche programming and the economics of television news all have worked to reduce the access of campaigns to voters and the access of voters to political information.

Candidates are spending time on the phone, raising money for messages they can control, rather than bouncing around the state, visiting local media outlets. That means less information is available for news feeds.

Tight budgets and little viewer pressure for political news have shrunk television's campaign coverage. This season, local stations have bumped California political stories in favor of coverage of erupting national and international events.

A proliferation of viewing choices--especially cable, videocassette recorders and remote controls--has expanded viewers' media options. Californians who never want to see or hear another piece of political information can easily screen it out with the switch of the dial or a touch of the fast-forward button.

What may be politically significant is that mass-media defectors tend to be better-off and better educated--not unlike the profile of the high-propensity voter. If voters are getting less information from the media and not getting it elsewhere, where are they learning their politics?

This election season, the pattern has been that candidates have telescoped their paid media campaigns into a few commercials that air repeatedly during the last month or so of the campaign, when voters tend to focus some attention on political ads.

That is why the spot that propelled Dianne Feinstein ahead of her Democratic primary opponent has been recycled for the general election campaign. The voters, her campaign explained, needed to be re-acquainted with her.

That is why campaign advertising tends to focus on what the National Journal calls hot-button issues--"images, pictures and ideas with the power to appeal to the most voters in the least time."

In California, that has translated into spots on crime and the death penalty. They send the message that both candidates are tough. And ads that focus on education and crack babies project an image of caring.

Conventional wisdom has it that the news media have more influence on voters than paid media. It is also gospel that most voters get their news from the electronic media.

That's why, before economics led stations to lift their ban on political advertising during news programming, a so-called "news adjacency" was coveted by the candidates and their media buyers.

That's why "reality spots," using actual news clips and headlines to bolster a candidate's image--or to lend credibility to his or her charges--are prominent in this campaign. That technique was used to blunt Democrat Feinstein's attack linking her Republican gubernatorial rival, Pete Wilson, to the savings-and-loan crisis. A TV spot by the Wilson campaign highlighted newspaper criticism--including that of The Times--of Feinstein's charges.

In a recent New York Times article, Feinstein media consultant Hank Morris extolled "docu-commercials," which he defined as "pieces of actual, real history." Big deal. Biographical spots have been a staple of campaign politics forever. What makes them so special in this campaign is that they are the major source of information about the candidates.

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