Despite what feels like coast-to-coast saturation, only one-fifth of all DMAs, 47, were seeing advertising by both sides as of July 12. In the most critical markets, ads are airing at frequencies typically seen 60 days out from Election Day, not dead-of -summer July. In Columbus, Ohio, 1,640 spots aired during the first 12 days of this month compared to 1,326 during the first 12 days of September 2008. Every presidential ad on the air in Columbus as of July 12 was negative.
Most of the media attention is being paid to tonnage, driven by hyperventilating (if you're an editorial writer) or salivating (if you're a broadcaster) over Super PACs and the prospect of fundraising record-smasher President Obama himself getting outspent on the air. Collectively, Republican advertisers will outspend Obama, and by a greater margin than Democrats outspent President George W. Bush in 2004.
But advertising professionals know that message matters as much as tonnage. Republican ad dollars spent on tearing down the known Obama rather than building up the unknown Romney may have diminishing returns. At this writing, except for a single positive spot that aired two months ago, the only English-language ads that have sought to humanize Romney have been negative ads by Democrats.
Here are the parameters of the 2012 air war:
More advertisers, more money
We've seen more big-spending presidential players by this point in the race than ever before. Kantar Media CMAG counts eight "major" non-candidate advertisers since the general election campaign began. Only two of the eight support Obama: Priorities USA Action and Planned Parenthood. Longtime Democratic constituencies such as environmentalists and unions also are teaming up with Priorities USA Action on ad buys.
The remaining six advertisers oppose the President: the Crossroads network, Restore Our Future, Americans for Prosperity, Concerned Women for America, American Future Fund, and American Energy Alliance, in order of highest to lowest spend. Lesser-funded groups are popping up to skirmish with Obama in a few markets apiece.
Not all these groups are super PACs; many are more "traditional" nonprofits. Not all money flowing into 2012 is the result of Citizens United.
None of these outside advertisers have "National Committee" in their names, although we expect both the Democratic and Republican National Committees to eventually hit the air in a significant way. Less than a decade ago, candidates and parties accounted for almost 90% of political advertising. In 2012, we expect Romney and the RNC to account for less than half of all advertising by their side.
There's some upside for the Obama campaign in his largely solo fight. While Democrats outspent Bush on the air in 2004, the Bush campaign controlled a greater share of its side's advertising and thus controlled more of the message. A lot of Democratic ad dollars arguably were wasted on off-message ads. The team in Chicago also has access to the lowest unit rate, so its ad dollars will stretch further while stations charge Republican groups as much as they dare.
Editorial writers and public-interest groups continue to rail against the "secretive" Super PAC monsters that recent rulings have created. Overall, however, the Fourth Estate has done an extraordinary job of tracing the flow of campaign contributions into advertising through dogged reporting, mastery of the campaign-finance law crazy quilt and crowdsourcing. Any American interested enough in who is funding a particular ad campaign can usually find an answer by searching no further than sources such as Politico, The New York Times, or ProPublica (disclosure: the latter two have been CMAG clients).
The Federal Communications Commission also is doing its share to increase transparency in advertising. As of August 2, ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC affiliates in the top 50 DMAs must begin posting their political ad sales on the FCC website for all to see, including other advertisers and their agencies.
The move is a transitional step toward requiring disclosure by more stations in 2014. For the first three months of the general election campaign, by CMAG's calculations, 57% of all presidential spots and 39% of all presidential ad spending occurred on stations not covered by the FCC's new rule for 2012.
Every political handicapper keeps a list of 10 to 12 so-called "swing states," but only eight have drawn bipartisan advertising to date: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia. Republicans also are advertising in the upper Midwest: Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Fewer than half of all households, or 42%, have seen a presidential ad air on broadcast TV in their markets as of mid-July.
More spots, shorter lives
By this point in 2004, our best comparison given the start dates for the general election contests, the Bush and Kerry campaigns together had launched 18 creative executions that aired, or would air for one month or much longer. Overall in 2004, 30% of all Bush's ads aired for a month or longer; 18% of Kerry's general election ads aired for a month or longer.
At this point in 2012, the Obama campaign and its supporting super PAC are the only advertisers to keep spots on the air for even one month. Three of these four "long-running" ads criticize Romney's work at Bain Capital.
This shorter lifespan is a sign of the times, a reflection of how the rollout of new ads has become a real force in driving the narrative of the race. Advertisers are introducing new ads more often to try to shape the storyline. And Republican outside groups are essentially alternating buys, taking turns providing air cover for their nominee.
The Romney campaign, for its part, has methodically rotated in a new creative every Thursday or Friday for the past nine weeks with the exception of the July Fourth holiday weekend.