What Big Bird Teaches Us About Political Advertising

Why Pay When You Can Manipulate the Media Megaphone?

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Even if very few people ever see President Barack Obama's "Big Bird" ad during an actual commercial break on TV, it fulfilled its mission before a single dollar was spent to air it. Network and cable morning shows gave untold millions in publicity to the ad mocking Mitt Romney's plan to cut funding for public broadcasting, and the free-media ride rolled on from there.

As the tryouts for the U.S. governing team, national politics is a marketing vertical that doubles as news. It keeps entire Sunday-show franchises, cable networks and online media outlets alive. Victory in politics requires deft manipulation of this built-in megaphone, and one of the most transparent ploys is advertising.

With the exception of the Super Bowl, only in politics can the release of a TV ad drive millions of dollars in free media. A provocative ad meant to capitalize on an opponent's perceived weakness, especially if it fits into a popular storyline (in "Big Bird's" case, continuing discussion of the first presidential debate), can dominate a national news cycle without actually airing. Meanwhile, an ad that airs only in the D.C. media market can change the conversation among the opinion elite.

The media generally tries to cover TV advertising in proportion to the size of the buy -- which is to say, an ad with almost no money behind it theoretically gets little coverage. However, sometimes journalists cave in to the buzz factor; other times, they just don't check. With "Big Bird," it's both: In the process of debating the impact of the ad, plenty of pundits incorrectly told millions of people that the ad was on the air before it ever ran.

Of course, an announced ad may be limited or pulled for mundane reasons. It may be targeted at a particular voting bloc, such as Latinos or VH1 viewers or white men living in coal country. It may be replaced by a more effective ad or become outdated even more quickly than usual.

Still, the play for the free lunch remains one of the most popular reasons behind ads that never or barely air -- as ads, at least. Kantar Media's CMAG reviewed a list of ads by major presidential advertisers that have run fewer than 250 times during the 2012 campaign. These advertisers have plenty of money -- most of their commercials have aired thousands of times -- and can't plead poverty as the reason for a little-aired spot. Here are some examples from the pantheon of the under-aired:

The never aired
On Sept. 23, Romney's campaign announced a negative ad called "Mute Button." It was based on a report by uber-journalist Bob Woodward that during negotiations over the stimulus package, Obama called Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who answered but then muted the phone and continued their meeting. "Not even listening to what he had to say. If he cannot lead his own party, how can he lead America?" the ad asked. Turns out the ad itself was muted for voters -- its audience was largely limited to the journalists to whom it was released. As of October 9, it hadn't aired on broadcast TV.

The barely aired
On Sept. 25, pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action announced an ad attacking Romney for his infamous "47%" remarks, which came to light a week earlier. The first Democratic ad to air in response to those remarks, the ad was anticipated and got media attention -- but aired only four times, one time each in the critical states of Colorado, Florida, Ohio and Virginia, where it was clearly intended to reverberate on local news.

The same group also can be credited for the most infamous barely-aired ad of 2012: Its spot trying to tie Romney to the cancer death of a steelworker's wife. One in a series of ads by the group that have showed Americans alleging that Bain Capital under Romney wiped out their jobs and destroyed their livelihoods, the spot shows the steelworker saying to the camera that when Bain closed his steel plant, he and his family lost their health care, after which his wife became ill, was discovered to have stage-four cancer and died.

For days, the ad got wall-to-wall political news coverage before ever hitting the air. Much of the coverage was devoted to truth-squadding the ultimately sketchy allegations, with the Romney campaign going on offense in an effort to set the president back on his heels over an ad his campaign didn't produce. When the ad finally did air, amid the advertiser's suggestions that the airing was a station error, it ran only twice.

For Washington's eyes only
A trio of Romney ads between July and September aired on broadcast TV only in the D.C. market. Yes, northern Virginia is home to a critical bloc of swing voters, but more likely, the Romney campaign was trying to shape the political media's impressions of its own efforts and the Obama campaign's.

Launched on July 14, in the thick of the Democratic attacks on Romney over Bain Capital's outsourcing practices, a Romney campaign ad sought to cast the president as playing small-ball by using Obama's own remarks at the 2008 convention against him: "Because if you don't have any fresh ideas, then you use stale tactics to scare voters," Obama was shown saying. "You make a big election about small things." The ad aired 14 times, only in Washington.

In early September, a second Romney ad followed the same strategy of accusing the President of thinking small before the opinion-maker audience. This time, the ad sought to turn President Bill Clinton's support for Obama against him by showing Clinton's angry criticism of Obama's campaign tactics in 2008. The widely-covered ad aired 21 times, again only in Washington.

Later that month, Romney launched a third D.C.-targeted ad which received considerable media coverage for its obvious -- and for the Romney campaign, rare -- effort to cultivate women. Known as "Dear Daughter," the ad aired a respectable 217 times, if only in Washington.

In 1964, the "Daisy" ad's single-airing punch turned out to be a knockout; its reminder of a nuclear threat was widely credited for Lyndon Johnson's victory. Like other fresh tactics in politics that result in history-making success, the ploy of advertising for the sake of free media -- and more recently, for the sake of social media -- has become more commonplace over the years with an increasingly diluted impact, falling flat as often as not.

"Big Bird" brings us full-circle. A tactic once used to raise the critical question of who voters would entrust with the U.S. nuclear arsenal is now a tactic used to make a small statement -- as Snuffy would say, "sorry, Bird" -- about the fate of some of the funding for public TV. But the Obama campaign's successful hijacking of America's most beloved bird, and by consequence, of the news cycle, reminds us that for better or worse, it still works.

Elizabeth Wilner is VP of Kantar Media's CMAG, which tracks and analyzes broadcast TV advertising content, placement and spend.
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