About 6,600 Political Ads Have Aired in 2012: Here Are Five Standouts

From Dogcatcher to President, Kantar's CMAG Has Seen Them All

By Published on .

Crossroads GPS spoofs DirecTV's spots.
Crossroads GPS spoofs DirecTV's spots.
At Kantar Media CMAG, we've watched more political ads than anyone else in America. It's a hard-earned distinction.

Our firm tracks political-advertising spending, placement and content. To track content, we view new ads every day and assign a series of tags to each based on what they say and show. If a candidate for dogcatcher has the money to put an ad on broadcast TV, we see it and tag it.

To date in 2012, we've processed about 6,600 unique advertisements in races for municipal office up to president, and in issue campaigns ranging from how to pay for a new bridge in Detroit to how to define marriage in several states. At this point in the election cycle, we process as many as 400 completely new as well as revised ads every day.

A painful proportion of them are all the same -- except for the five featured below.

Why they're the same
The reasons why are the short-term saving grace -- but longer-term risk -- of the political ad-making profession: The insatiable, expedited news cycle that devours new ads. The increasing reliance on news and opposition research to drive political ad content. The punishing echo chamber that awaits ads that are perceived as crossing some line, keeping usually risk-averse campaigns from approving edgier spots. As a result, ad-makers are expected to churn out ads faster and, often, less creatively than ever.

In 2012, the dominance of the economy as voters' top priority is taxing ad-makers further. Not only are an unusually high percentage of ads about the same issues, but the available array of words and visuals to illustrate them is pretty limited. The result: even more uniformity.

Of course, exceptions exist. A few are noted here. And of course, our experience isn't the same as that of voters. Voters typically see what airs in their market and maybe the market next door. They may not realize that much of the time they're being peddled the same canned messages as voters hundreds of miles away.

For Democrats, those messages are: create jobs; end tax breaks for companies that outsource; protect Medicare from Republicans who want to dismantle it and charge seniors $6,400 more for health care per year; oppose tax breaks for millionaires; and protect Social Security from Wall Street .

The Republican messages are: cut job-killing regulations; stop out-of -control government spending; reduce the debt; repeal Obamacare and its $716 billion gutting of Medicare; and strengthen or preserve Medicare and Social Security.

'Doughnut ads'
Sometimes, voters separated by entire time zones will see virtually the exact same ad, further adding to the monotony. These "doughnut ads," a long-used approach popular in congressional races, have a hole in the middle where the ad-maker inserts a candidate's name and home base. Lately, Republican groups Americans for Tax Reform and Crossroads GPS have been airing doughnut ads in markets as disparate as San Diego; Pittsburgh; Albany, N.Y.; and Augusta, Ga.; for one such ad. South Bend, Ind.; Bakersfield, Calif.; and Davenport, Iowa, got another and Des Moines, Iowa, and New York a third.

Meanwhile, some voters in Florida, Colorado and California are seeing the same Democratic ad opposing three Republican candidates based on their opposition to stem-cell research. At the presidential level, Democratic group Patriot Majority recently used a doughnut ad in Iowa, Nevada, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Yet even in the isolation chambers of their own home markets, voters have to be feeling it. In states hosting races that are critical to control of the Senate, there's simply no break from ads that have aired for months on end repeating the same accusations over and over again.

Under attack
In the past six months in North Dakota, 27 different ads by six different sponsors have attacked Democratic Senate nominee Heidi Heitkamp for supporting Obamacare; eight ads by four sponsors have shown a clip of Heitkamp at the 2008 Denver convention saying she thought Obama would be "amazing" as president.

In the Ohio Senate race, 11 different ads have hit Republican nominee and Treasurer Josh Mandel for missing official meetings to travel cross-country raising money for his campaign; five have hit him for hiring unqualified "cronies" to work in his state office.

And in a growing number of cases, multiple advertisers are sharing ads. Two outside groups -- and they're multiplying fast in 2012 -- may run the same ad at varying points in a race, further contributing to the clutter.

All of this makes the unique ads stand out even more. And voters will find some relief in the coming final push, which often inspires more distinctive spots. Like the House candidate in Colorado whose latest ad is almost literally on fire (thanks to the candidate using footage of recent area wildfires).

Or the politically vulnerable congressman from Georgia who sits in a living room calmly brandishing two guns. "And for as long as I could remember, my father always had this rifle here real handy," he says as he locks and loads the rifle, "just to keep us safe. … I approve this message because these are my guns now (safeties the rifle) and ain't nobody going to take 'em away."

To give you a little relief of your own, the Kantar Media CMAG staff recommends a few of the 6,600 ads we've seen thus far in 2012. These ads stand out because they're unusually creative, personal or authentic. And keep in mind: it's all relative.

War hero vs. drunk dude
An ad from GOP Rep. Allen West claims that while he was preparing to serve his country, his Democratic opponent was getting into a bar brawl and a fight with police. The ad's military satellite-looking graphics lend authenticity. The Democrat's response ad debunking some of the charges didn't get as much free media attention.

Blue-plate special
Rolling out Grandma to try and undercut Democrats on Medicare is a popular GOP tactic which typically leads to hokey ads, but this one by Rep. Kristi Noem of South Dakota is more endearing than most.

Tastes like homemade
Here's a gem from a state legislative candidate: Democratic Alaskan state Sen. Bettye Davis, a Louisiana native, stands in a kitchen demonstrating her politically loaded recipe for gumbo.

Advertising Age Player

'Sorry isn't good enough'
An ad from Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill in Missouri capitalizes on GOP opponent Todd Akin's problematic comments about rape and neutralizes his much-publicized apology. In the ad, a woman who identifies herself as a pro-life Republican "and a rape survivor" says that while she herself did not choose to use emergency contraception, Akin's apology doesn't make up for his belief that use of it should be a crime.

DirecTV spoof
A Crossroads GPS ad attacks Democratic Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown by spoofing the DirecTV ads spooling out a hilarious stream of consequences, the most famous ending being, "Don't reenact scenes from Platoon with Charlie Sheen." The not-quite-as-funny Crossroads ad ends with, "Don't let Sherrod Brown hurt Ohio."

Don't let boring ads get you down. Election Day is coming.

Elizabeth Wilner is VP of Kantar Media's CMAG, which tracks and analyzes broadcast TV advertising content, placement and spend.
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