Though the Obama campaign is keeping mum about whether it will definitely run spots, it has asked NBC Universal about Olympics advertising including $500,000, $2 million and $4 million packages of ads. (NBC presented those along with a $10 million package.) It's not only a sign that the Obama camp has faith it can continue its stellar fundraising achievements but a signal that a widening field of battleground states has the candidate contemplating national broadcast buys. An Olympics buy could also allow Mr. Obama to reach out to a large swath of women.
"Obviously our buyers, when contemplating the election, look at a variety of options," said Jim Margolis, the GMMB partner who co-chairs the Obama advertising team. "You will probably see us looking at lots of things. There is a big difference between looking and buying."
There's also a big difference between Team Obama and Team McCain. Sen. John McCain's campaign has inquired about Olympics rates but hasn't asked for specific packages. Besides, with the Republican candidate lagging far behind in fundraising, such buys would take a huge chunk out of his budget before the conventions.
NBC will air 3,600 hours of Olympics coverage on NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, USA Network, Oxygen and Telemundo. All the packages presented to the Obama campaign include time on both NBC and cable. No presidential candidate has done any significant buying of network TV ad time since Bob Dole ran in 1996. The only political ads that have aired on any broadcast network in this campaign were two from Rudy Giuliani in consecutive weeks on "Fox News Sunday."
Instead, presidential candidates have targeted their ads to battleground states. When they have tried to reach a wider audience, they've gone with national cable. There has been speculation this year that with more states in play this time, the economics of media buying might call for a national overlay to state-by-state ads.
Launching first ads today
The Obama campaign, launching its first ads today since winning the nomination, went with the battleground-states approach. It chose to run its "The Country I Love" spot in 18 states, six more than the dozen battleground states four years ago. The 18 are Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Virginia.
Olympics advertising could offer the candidate an opportunity to home in on women. Four years ago, viewership of the Olympics on prime time averaged a 15 rating among U.S. households. Among women 18 and over, the average rating was 11.2, while men 18 and older earned a 9.6, according to Nielsen Co. On some nights, the female audience was more than three ratings points higher than the male audience. (Ratings are percentages of all TV households, whether or not their sets are turned on. For example, a 1.0 rating is 1% of the total U.S. households with TVs.)
But there are costs aside from the high ad prices. The Olympics come pretty early in the presidential process, ahead of both parties' conventions. And the prices of national ads reflect their reach in states such as California, Illinois and New York -- states that are presumably already in Obama's column.
Questioning the strategy
Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp, a sports-marketing consultant in Chicago, said candidates have talked before about buying the World Series or baseball playoffs -- but those events happen shortly before the election.
"The question is: Why buy such expensive ad time in August, three months before the election? The advantage is you get a big audience with a broad section of the country. The negative is it's not niche advertising. You are paying for advertising in states where you might not have a chance to win or where you will win overwhelmingly."
Still, he said, the advertising would have some advantage, including the publicity and attention it would draw.