Political Advertising: The Gift that Keeps On Giving

$47 Million Spent Since Nov. 4

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Evan TraceyEvan Tracey
With the 2008 elections now in the rearview mirror, one would expect political and issue ad spending to take a break. Well, it has done anything but. Issue ad spending on federal and state policies has topped $42 million since Nov. 4. This, combined with the additional $5 million in runoff ad spending, makes the 2008 election the gift that keeps on giving.

Since the early days of the Clinton administration, issue ads have been a staple in all of the major public-policy efforts. It was the Harry and Louise campaign in the early 1990s that first addressed the administration's plan to redo healthcare in America. These ads waited until the process got started before engaging the American public. Today, however, many groups do not wait for a new president to be sworn before hitting the airwaves to sway public opinion. Some may think this is a waste of money, but, in reality, they are getting a jump on what may be a vital channel of communication in the new world of a Barack Obama presidency.

Ad spending since the elections has been focused on a number of important issues: more than $3.1 million spent on union membership and legal reform; over $30 million on energy production and global warming; $8 million on healthcare and pharmaceutical issues; ads about abortion policy; and, of course, ads from car-dealer associations and the unions on the auto bailout legislation. With the exception of the auto bailout ads, most of the spending proactively targets the incoming Congress and the new administration in an effort to get a head-start on what could be very complex issues.

At his press conference to introduce his Tom Daschle-led healthcare team, President-elect Obama reaffirmed his desire to see all healthcare negotiations done "out in the open" on C-SPAN. In addition to this, it has also been reported that the Obama camp intends to keep its state field offices open, allowing them to mobilize communities and pressure key legislators from back home when major issues are on the table. These steps will ensure traditional backroom lobbying will need to be combined with some fairly heavy national advertising campaigns to support or offset.

With his record spending and blanket coverage, the Obama campaign showed us why TV ads still matter and how, when used with all the right tools, a winning message can be delivered. For all the talk about the use of new media -- viral videos, micro-targeting and the like -- it was the blunt instrument and shear tonnage of TV that gave the Obama campaign the platform and national voice it needed to overpower both the Clinton and McCain brands. It is likely that TV ads will also play a big role in the coming years as the new president reworks the old methods of passing legislation. This change will not come with interest groups standing still, and it may unleash some ad campaigns that will make Harry and Louise look like small potatoes. Can you say $100 million in first 100 days?

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Evan Tracey is the founder and president of Campaign Media Analysis Group, a TNS Media Intelligence company. See his complete bio.