Inventory tight: Political ads rocket toward $1.6B record

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Advertising spending on the 2004 political campaign could soar to $1.6 billion, shattering what were already record estimates by $300 million and leaving marketers to scrounge for TV time in hotly-contested states.

Spending on Sen. John Kerry's campaign, combined with outlays by Democratic groups like the Media Fund and MoveOn.org, has topped the Bush barrage initially expected to trounce it. Going into the Democratic National Convention in Boston this week, $195 million has already been spent on post-primary ads for the Presidential campaign of 2004-equaling what was spent on the entire post-primary Presidential campaign four years ago.

"Everyone has gone out there and raised a lot of hard money," said Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of TNS Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group, a tracking company, upping his earlier optimistic estimate.

"As much has been spent before either party's convention as during all of 2000," marveled Carter Eskew, an ad executive behind Vice President Al Gore's ad campaign four years ago who now heads the Glover Park Group. He said the only unresolved question is whether GOP groups can match the Democratic torrent.

The largesse has been a boon to media companies but is tightening up advertising inventory for marketers increasingly finding time expensive and hard to secure in battleground states.

Mark Serianne, CEO of Northlich Advertising in Cincinnati, reports Ohio stations are charging 20% to 25% premiums to buy time-and even then there is no assurance the time won't be pre-empted. "You are able to buy, but run up against a 25% pre-emption risk. You have to step back and ask yourself, 'Do I want my creative roadblocking political ads? Do I want to be in that environment?'"

Ken Weisberg, broadcast buying director at MDC-backed Crispin Porter & Bogusky, Miami, said he's girding for steep price increases as political candidates and their supporters snap up available airtime in the market. He said stations are saying that schedules placed starting Aug. 1 could see year-to-year increases of 20% through the election instead of the 5% increase that had been in effect.

The Democrats' fund-raising success is fueling what could become an even harsher battle for the fall as local races, additional political committees and the presidential campaigns themselves boost get-out-the vote and issue efforts.

It also is altering hope that autumn ads will turn gentler.

Campaign-finance changes limit unions and corporations' political action committees ability to attack candidates by name in broadcast ads within 60 days of an election. That had built expectations ads would get toned down, with negative ads moving to print or the Internet.

But it's turned out that Democratic groups have had little trouble raising money directly from individuals who can give more because of other campaign law changes. A key Federal Elections Commission ruling allows ads paid for by individual contributors to be as hard-hitting as attack ads.

Although the Kerry campaign has indicated it will conserve resources from federal financing due in August until fall, the Democratic National Committee is about to unleash a new ad campaign. The Bush camp, which gets its federal financing after the GOP convention ends Sept. 2, has to spend its remaining private money before that date. Some of the Democratic groups said last week they will spend through November.

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