In the US, the Jackpot of Campaign Ads

A tea party member musing that a Democratic challenger uses taxpayer money to “give Viagra to pedophiles and rapists”; a Democratic presidential contender accused of obtaining Vietnam War decorations on the basis of lies; a candidate for governor who wanted to create “gas chambers” for the “mass euthanasia” of abandoned dogs and cats; a contender for the Republican nomination suspected of trying to inoculate girls with a sexually transmitted disease; a Republican opponent claiming that Obama supported the introduction of sex education in an Illinois kindergarten …

For decades in the U.S., so many nauseating ads have flooded television screens during election season. Overseas, political advertising on television is the mark of bad manners, but it’s good business. And the channels are the primary beneficiaries of this juicy televised joust.

Several Billion Dollars of Ad Revenues

Although the primary race started a few months ago, the candidates are just about to launch their great television offensive. The year 2016 promises to break all records. Local stations should pocket more than $4 billion of “political” advertising revenue, an increase of nearly 16 percent compared to the previous election in 2012. At least that is what a report by market research firm Kantar Media predicts. “Political advertising is the fastest growing sector,” notes Elizabeth Wilner at Kantar. “In a sluggish market, it is the only segment to have grown so much.”*

Consulting firm Borrell Associates puts the amount three to four times higher, at more than $16 billion. Some experts say this is a crazy figure. Candidates are not the only ones investing in the small screen. So-called independent interest groups — super-political action committees or PACs (armed with private donations) and lobbies — do not hesitate to shell out the big bucks, mostly to smear the opponents of their favored candidate. And nothing can stop them. A 2010 decision by the Supreme Court of the United States, Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, allows companies the unlimited ability to finance campaigns. In April 2014, the campaign finance rules were further relaxed: Individual donations were uncapped. If American democracy has taken a hit, the TV channels have won the jackpot.

Eighty-Five Percent ‘Negative’ Ads

Purple states — those that have no dominant political color and can swing to the right or left — end up with the bulk of the attention. These states include Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia and Florida. The law requires local television stations to offer candidates the lowest rates and to broadcast these advertisements, unless they are “obscene,” or the channels can demonstrate, before dissemination, that they are false. There is no constraint, however, when it comes to interest groups, who themselves pay a high price to pour their venom on the airwaves.

In 2012, 85 percent of political ads were “negative,” as we call it abroad — as opposed to “positive” ads, which extol a candidate’s qualities and ability to get results. “This is a difficult but lucrative business, and I’ve never heard of a channel that refused a super PAC’s money,” said Dennis Wharton, vice president of communications for the National Association of Broadcasters, a union representing radio and television interests.*

“In recent years, many local TV channels have been the subject of sales and acquisitions, and those who generate strong political advertising revenues get the most attention,” says Elizabeth Wilner, of Kantar. Can television resist competition from the digital market, which is gradually encroaching into its space? “Compared to other markets, politics is much slower to invest in web advertising,” says Elizabeth Wilner. “Because in politics, television is a measure of credibility: If you have the means to pay for spots, then you are a serious candidate.”*

Political TV ads thus still have good times ahead: “It will be at least 2024 before digital advertising overshadows TV,” says Corey Elliott, vice president of research at Borrell Associates, which predicts that in 2016, over $1 billion will be invested on the web.*

* Editor’s Note: Although correctly translated, this quote could not be sourced.

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