Think of presidential advertising in 2012 as a multibillion-dollar stampede. New spots are hitting at a rate of more than one per day -- 29 so far this month. In some swing states, spot counts are double what they were at this point four years ago and ad spending has reached September or October levels, with the bulk of it yet to come. And since the Fourth of July holiday, every ad to hit the air (in English, at least) has been critical of President Obama or Governor Romney.
Once the herd is hurtling, it's difficult for any one advertiser to change the course. The candidates aren't oblivious to public sentiment. As we're seeing this week, in times of tragedy and triumph or even just an ominous polling trend line, they grow wary of appearing out of step. But the faceless super PACs and 501(c)4s spending tens of millions alongside them have less to fear from a backlash in public opinion.
Every strategy comes with a cost. Unilateral disarmament won't happen in presidential advertising until the day when voters give the White House keys to a candidate who either opts out of the ad arms race or sticks to a positive message as a matter of principle.
Games, not a game changer
NBC Sports executives urged presidential hopefuls to stay upbeat during the Summer Olympics, arguing that Americans don't want to see grainy footage and grim statistics bracketing medal ceremonies (and NBC's trademark glossy athlete profiles). But the idea that an air war that has been totally negative for weeks would suddenly break out in harp music is fantasy. We may see some of the most memorable ads of 2012 during the games, but they won't all be positive.
Why not? About 200 million reasons, according to NBC's projections. The Olympics offer the largest audience and the broadest demographic reach presidential advertisers will see for any programming before Election Day. This is their Super Bowl, and with so many fresh eyes tuning in, the opportunity is just too tempting for them not to take advantage with some "contrast" spots.
Reason No. 200,000,001 is news, which doesn't brake for the Games. The July jobs report is due out Aug. 3, with no reason to think it will be any stronger than recent reports that have triggered Republican ads criticizing the president.
The Olympics also figure prominently in Mitt Romney's successful-businessman profile, giving us reason to expect the first biographical -- and a rare positive -- ad to come out of Boston. So far, though, Democrats have been quicker to exploit Romney's CV in advertising and won't let him promote his Salt Lake City 2002 experience of overseeing the games without firing back.
What the pressure of advertising during the Olympics does do is inspire the ad-makers to step up their game and produce spots that could medal in quality if not niceties. In 2008, Republican nominee John McCain's ad [below] criticizing Barack Obama as a superficial Britney-and-Paris-like celeb stood out not only because it was a -- gasp -- negative spot, but because it was hard-hitting and memorable. The campaign kept the ad on the air through Election Day.
When to hold, when to fold
Presidential advertisers will use the Olympics as a cover for returning to the air in Colorado, where they've stayed dark for the week since the shooting massacre in Aurora. Obama's campaign went back on the air there today.
Political ads are pulled at times of national, local and personal trial. For years, political advertisers went dark on Sept. 11 to mark the anniversary of the terrorist attacks. At the local level, candidates regularly stop advertising when their opponents suffer family emergencies.
Rather than pull ads in Colorado Springs during the wildfires last month, the herd actually escalated their ad buys to take advantage of the growing audience for local news, where all-important undecided voters can be found. Twenty-six negative spots aired on June 9, the day the High Park Fire began; four times that many negative spots aired on June 25 after 248 homes were destroyed.
Maybe the story unfolded too gradually to ever prompt that moment of recognition for the advertisers that the politically expedient choice would be to cease and desist. Or maybe that moment occurred but they all just kept buying.
Before the shootings, Colorado already had seen half as much spending on TV as it saw for the entire 2008 general election campaign. On the morning of the tragedy, 171 spots aired in Denver, Colorado Springs and Grand Junction before the ads came down. This dark week will barely amount to a speed bump, well worth the averted backlash for candidates who have to personally approve what they're putting on the air.
Standing by their ads
Since the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, or the McCain-Feingold Act, became law in 2002, federal candidates have been forced to appear in their own ads, approving them verbally and visually. Failure to comply can cost the candidates in fines and worse, denial of cheap advertising rates.
2012 may be the first presidential campaign in which the "Stand By Your Ad" clause reaps its intended effect, because appearing to personally approve runaway negative advertising is costing the candidates, too. This week, the historically steady NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll showed Obama and Romney with their highest "very negative" ratings ever. Suggesting they're seeing the same trend line, Obama's campaign launched two ads in which he speaks directly to camera, a rare move for a sitting president.
In one of the ads, Obama approves his own message in person, rather than just using a voice-over and photo -- an even rarer gesture. Ad-makers believe that showing a presidential candidate in person approving his or her own ad is , well, unpresidential. Romney's ads all include the same voice-over and black-and-white photo of Romney and his wife Ann holding hands while walking through a field. The Obama campaign changes theirs up with a dozen different voice-overs, photos, film clips and screens.
In his newest ad, however, the president approves his own tempered message, "because I believe we're all in this together."