Both GOP nominee George W. Bush and Democratic rival Vice President Al Gore appear poised to abandon national ads. And, in a blow to the Big 4 broadcast TV networks and cable networks, both parties contend it's more efficient to buy spot markets in swing states.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Joe Andrew said spot buys allow better tailoring of local messages and targeting of swing states. He also said the switch from national ads is part of a broader trend in which national themes for mailings and phone bank scripts are increasingly replaced with tailored, local messages.
"Campaigns are becoming more and more customized. Everything about this is to try and get an individualized message into an individual household. The future of campaigns is probably less resources in broadcast television and more in those things that can directly reach into an individual household and motivate" people to vote, Mr. Andrew said.
The shift has been coming for some time. There wasn't much national advertising four years ago, when President Bill Clinton's media strategy, crafted by Squier Knapp Ochs Communications, Washington, allocated $37 million to spot TV and less than $1 million of the $39.9 million total to network TV and cable. Rival Bob Dole's campaign spent $3 million of its $35.4 million budget on network ads and another $2.3 million in cable between August and November, according to Competitive Media Reporting.
Now, however, the shift is accelerating, resulting in the distinct chance there won't be any national advertising around this year's presidential race.
Last week at the Republican National Convention, Bush strategist Karl Rove told delegates the candidate's campaign would not buy national ads. Mark McKinnon, who heads the Bush campaign's Maverick Media ad team, confirmed the decision to concentrate the buy in 15 to 20 key states. Mr. McKinnon was at the convention along with several members of the candidate's so-called Madison Avenue Posse, among them Y&R Advertising New York President Jim Ferguson and Chairman Emeritus Ed Ney.
Mr. McKinnon said he sees no reason for national advertising.
"You just have to look at the numbers," he said. "Campaigns that have lost in the past have bought nationally, while smart campaigns that win buy locally."
The shop now named Squier Knapp Dunn Communications also is involved in the Gore campaign, which has so far followed the ad buying script of four years ago. The Gore Victory 2000 ad team declined repeated requests for comment on this year's plans, but has been running ads for the DNC for six weeks (see accompanying Political Ad Review). Those spots have run in only 17 states, not nationally. New York and California aren't among the states targeted for media so far; neither is Gov. Bush's home state of Texas.
The DNC's Mr. Andrew denied that in limiting ads to swing states, his party is writing off one chunk of the electorate while taking a second chunk for granted. Rather, he suggested, the party expects the presidential campaign will get extensive coverage and some states will have a large number of local ads from Democratic candidates.
The switch from national TV to local worries some people.
"The reality is we have a two-tiered campaign," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "We have the states that are contested, the 17 to 21 that are getting advertising. The ones that aren't getting advertising will have to rely on what little there is in network news or pay very close attention to the conventions or wait for the debates. That is not really fair."
She added, "What you are trying to do is to create a capacity to govern and it's based on what people know. You would like to reinforce the themes that come out of advertising. . . . Advertising mobilizes voters."
At last week's GOP convention, the issue whether new DNC advertising was or was not mobilizing voters turned into a major fight. The new Democratic ads target the voting record of former Congressman Dick Cheney, Gov. Bush's choice for vice president; Gov. Bush's environmental record; and several GOP convention messages.
Bush campaign officials expressed incredulity that the DNC would run ads during the GOP convention and bristled at their negative tone.
"It is ill-timed and ineffective," said Mr. McKinnon. "They are spending money when we basically have the largest amount of free advertising we will ever have in this campaign, which will smother whatever they are trying to do." Mr. McKinnon added that the attack on Mr. Cheney backfired. "Since they decided to attack Dick Cheney, Dick Cheney's favorable scores have gone up and Al Gore's negative scores have gone up," said Mr. McKinnon. "I am going to start funding their media buy."
Ari Fleischer, a Bush spokes-man, suggested the ads indicate the Gore campaign will engage extensively in negative ads. "The Democrats [advertising] started out bad and I think they are probably going to get even worse. It has just been a campaign with very little positive to offer, so instead it offers nothing but negative."
Mr. Andrew, however, denied the ads were negative, calling them "compare and contrast."