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Strategists Say TV Ads Are Losing Their Punch

Campaign: The Bush, Gore camps are spending record sums of money on advertising, but they say the 30-second commercial has lost much of its appeal.


Steve Rosenthal's organization just spent $10 million on something he increasingly considers a waste of money.

As the political director for the AFL-CIO, perhaps the Democratic Party's most critical ally on election day, Rosenthal plans the union's television advertising. But after pouring about $25 million into television ads four years ago, the union decided it would be better off focusing the cash on sophisticated voter mobilization efforts aimed at its own members.

Why? "Campaigns are focused almost entirely on TV," he said. "There's no one to talk to people one on one."

Like an increasing number of political strategists in both parties, he is coming to grips with a harsh reality: the candidates' medium-of-choice for decades, the 30-second commercial, is losing its edge.

One recent survey by Democratic pollster Mark Mellman found that 62% of registered voters watch TV with a remote control in their hand.

"The only reason they don't switch [channels] when a political ad comes on is if they drop it," said Mellman.

Top advisors to both major candidates, who are spending record sums on TV ads this year, say they don't believe the commercials can move public opinion as much, as quickly or for as long as they could just a few years ago.

Even in the Midwest, only 70% of voters have seen ads for either Democratic nominee Al Gore or Republican candidate George W. Bush, according to a poll completed Oct. 9 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, in spite of the fact that the airwaves there have been bristling with candidate ads since the two sides went on the air in June.

"It is more difficult generally to deliver messages through television as viewers become more diffuse," said senior Gore advisor Tad Devine.

Even so, the two sides are breaking all boundaries in ad spending this year. By Tuesday, each of the campaigns will have spent about $50 million, and for the first time, their parties will have outspent them. The Democratic Party and the GOP each will have plunked down $60 million for commercials.

But the money is paying for fewer and fewer viewers. The nation's four major networks' prime-time ratings have dropped 25% over the last decade. Ratings for "Wheel of Fortune," a perennial favorite with political ad buyers because it draws a broad audience and comes cheaper than prime-time, have slipped 33% since 1992, according to Nielsen data.

Campaign advisors blame the Internet, the proliferation of cable TV and an electorate that has grown distant from the political process. But since neither candidate wants to unilaterally cut back, both continue to scramble to raise money for media buys.

In fact, part of the strategists' response has been to buy even more television commercials. Gore's media team, whose principals worked for President Clinton's reelection, said it is trying to air 15% to 20% more ads than it did four years ago to achieve the same effect. Bush's media advisors also believe that each ad needs to have more airings to sink in with viewers.

Nobody is saying that ads don't work anymore. They are still the best way to reach a mass audience. But strategists say it's becoming clear the ads are less and less efficient.

John Carey, a media researcher who teaches at Columbia University and studies TV viewers in their homes, said he has found about two-thirds of viewers either click away from political ads as soon as they come on or listen absently. The remaining one-third of viewers pay close attention to the ads and, particularly if they are over the age of 50, may even argue with their television, he said.

Airing the ads more often won't work, he said, "because you're adding clutter to the clutter to the clutter."

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said the ads are useful to viewers inclined to vote.

In one study she conducted in 1998, she found that viewers in a focus group who were considered "high-involvement" even if they hadn't committed to a candidate stayed with political ads when watching TV. But "low-involvement" viewers, who represented about 40% of the group, quickly clicked away from the commercials.

"The question is, when does it become inefficient . . . to pay the dollar cost to reach" voters, she said. "It's one of the scandals of democracy that taxpayers' money is being used . . . to [reach] a diminishing audience."

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