Ad infinitum: Spending nears $500 million in Georgia’s Senate runoffs
As media spending in Georgia’s dual U.S. Senate runoffs inches toward $500 million, it’s difficult to imagine that there’s any TV or radio inventory left in the state.
With $483 million spent or booked for the Jan. 5 runoffs, $163 million in ads have yet to air.
That’s according to the fourth Campaign Ad Scorecard (CAS), Overtime Edition—part of an ongoing project led by Ad Age Datacenter in partnership with Kantar/CMAG. (See the table below.)
To call it a windfall is an understatement.
Even before Georgia’s ad infinitum, station owners in key political markets around the country had already reported enormous revenue growth due to unprecedented campaign spending up through Election Day.
Dave Lougee, president and CEO of Tegna, discussed this year’s political spending haul in the TV station group’s most recent earnings announcement. “Third quarter political revenue is the highest we have ever seen at Tegna, more than 200% above the last presidential election year, in part due to the recent strategic additions of stations in key political spending states, such as Iowa and Pennsylvania,” Lougee said. “For the full year, we booked $395 million of political revenue through … Election Day, exceeding our prior guidance of $370 million and almost 70% above our prior full year record of $234 million in 2018.”
Tegna owns WXIA (NBC) in Atlanta and WMAZ (CBS/CW) in Macon.
But because of the runoff, Atlantans in particular are finding political ads to be all but inescapable.
“The candidates are painting dogs here,” says Dave Fitzgerald, CEO of Atlanta-based agency Fitzco, joking that the only conceivable ad inventory left might be in the form of out-of-home rendered on area canines.
All four candidates have spent more than $40 million, with Democrat Jon Ossoff leading the way with more than $92 million. Ossoff is challenging U.S. Sen. David Perdue, one of two Republican incumbents. The second U.S. Senate seat in play is currently held by Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler; her challenger is Democrat Raphael Warnock.
Along with the candidates, Republican super PACs—American Crossroads ($48 million), Senate Leadership Fund ($47 million) and Peachtree PAC ($40 million)—round out the seven largest Georgia spenders. No other sponsor has spent more than $16 million.
WSB, Atlanta’s Cox-owned ABC affiliate, ranks first with $70 million in TV spending. (For those keeping score at home, the Cox Media Group is controlled by Apollo Global Management.)
Overall spending includes ads coming from markets bordering Georgia, including Jacksonville, Fla.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Greenville, S.C-Spartanburg, S.C.,-Ashville, N.C.-Anderson-S.C.
And although this is, on the surface of things, technically a local election, the stakes are high. If both Democrats win, the party will control both houses of Congress. (The Democrats and Republicans would have the same number of senators, but Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris would have the tie-breaking vote.)
CMAG reports $3.5 million in spending on national cable networks Fox News, Black News Channel and MSNBC.
All the figures above exclude direct mail and most digital advertising as well as campaign spending on travel, food and more.
“I’m taking the recycling bin out to my mailbox,” says Fitzco’s Fitzgerald.
The pain doesn’t end there. Some Georgia residents report receiving more than 20 texts from campaigns per week.
“They’re all crossing the line with personal texts,” Fitzgerald says. “Programmatic buys have suppression techniques, to make sure you don’t get over-messaged. Both parties are crossing the line with personal texts. There is seemingly no suppression strategy for political advertising in 2020."
Claire Russell, head of media at Fitzco, adds. “There’s a difference between targeted advertising and breaking and entering. As an industry, we carefully consider the strategy, context and creative for how our brands show up. This flood of unprompted and unsolicited texts and political bombardment in general degrades the work of our business, encouraging the view that advertising is both irritating and irrelevant.
“In Georgia right now, anywhere you can put a political ad, there is one. The extreme saturation makes you question the incrementality of the investment, too. What’s the impact of that next spot, text, billboard or banner on top of hundreds of millions in spend already? And sadly, think about how much progress we could make against something like hunger instead. It encourages people to think about advertising as irrelevant and unasked for. ... This political advertising is just a bombardment.”
Russell notes that the recent barrage of ads—including a slew of unwelcome text messages—have had no impact on her at all. She’s already voted.
“If we were strategic planners for a campaign, we’d really be looking at who hadn’t made up their minds. It feels like they’ve ignored that strategy.”
As for inventory, while stations don’t appear to be adding slots to commercial pods, TV stations have been moving their own promos to less attractive dayparts, making space for political ads within more coveted, higher-visibility dayparts, according to Gregory Aston, head of digital media research science, Kantar Media Division.
Even with the campaigns buying ads in virtually every daypart, the aggregate spending is still breathtaking. There are two weeks until the runoff. The post-Election Day total for two Senate seats may exceed $500 million before it’s over.
“With the control of the U.S. Congress in the balance, campaigns continue to buy. And the stations are well-positioned to command a premium price,” says Aston.