Forget Family; News Anchors Take Star Turns in Obama, Romney Ads

Breaking Through Beats Biography in This Election Cycle

By Published on .

The network news anchors are covering the presidential conventions, not participating in them, but they're already playing an unprecedented role in each side's battle plan to win. By this point in the Barack Obama-Mitt Romney bout, both nominees have relied more on network news people and programs in their campaign commercials than on members of their own families.

Despite being her husband's humanizing, not-so-secret weapon, Ann Romney has appeared only briefly in a few general election ads that have aired a collective 187 times; NBC News' Tom Brokaw appeared in a single Romney primary ad that aired 2,250 times. A still photo of Sasha and Malia Obama showed up in one of their dad's commercials that aired almost 7,000 times; three network news anchors appeared in another Obama spot that aired almost 12,000 times.

In the clutter of 2012 advertising, breaking through matters more than biography. Family members typically appear in positive ads -- the sort of for which neither side has had much use in 2012. What's new in this campaign is ad-makers' unprecedented drafting of network news talent and shows in their spots, believing that undecided voters are more likely to notice them.

No top TV news cupboard has gone un-raided, and they've largely been used for the purpose of creating attack ads. The only positive presidential spot using network talent during the general election race was "Go," Obama's early 60-second spot listing his major accomplishments. One of the longest-running ads of the race, it aired 11,936 times and included easily recognizable voiceovers by NBC's Brian Williams and Lester Holt plus footage of CNN's Ali Velshi.

From a messaging standpoint, TV journalists "deliver" the advertisers' messages not only more credibly but also more concisely and accessibly, an added benefit for the advertisers in light of the complex economic circumstances being debated this year. Deficit spending, unemployment and stimulus are tough to explain in 30 seconds, so why not "borrow" the people who do it for a living? Having familiar faces and voices do the work is also far more powerful than showing frame after frame of static newspaper headlines.

It's not surprising then that CNBC is the single most featured cable news network so far, with footage appearing in ads that have aired 12,265 times. CNN ranks a close second with 11,949, followed by MSNBC at 2,000. After Obama's "Go," the second most-aired ad using network news talent was a Crossroads GPS spot criticizing Obama on unemployment and opening with CNBC's John Harwood talking about a string of bad jobs reports. That ad aired 11,288 times.

"Meet the Press" moderator David Gregory has appeared in ads airing a total 3,205 times; the "Meet" set has appeared 3,587 times. The clip of Brokaw, comprising 26 seconds of a 30-second Romney ad, is the longest single clip used in an ad (and unlikely to be beaten for that title). It's basically Brokaw's entire January 1997 "NBC Nightly News" report that Newt Gingrich was found guilty of ethics violations by the House of Representatives. The ad helped kill Gingrich's chances of winning the Florida primary.

Most ads use only brief snippets of news footage. The second-longest clip, also used in a Romney campaign attack ad, is an 11-second bite of Bob Schieffer on CBS's "Face the Nation" talking about -- of all things -- the surge of negative ads and President Obama's set-aside of "hope and change."

Using network talent to deliver messages in TV ads offers advertisers a coveted combination. Earned media is generally thought to have limited impact on the decision-making of swing voters because the types of broadcasts they value are unlikely to contain the pointed messages that drive decision-making. On the other hand, media outlets that deliver messages with a point of view are watched mainly by people who already share that view.

The holy grail is being able to target swing voters with ads containing negative messages delivered by credible messengers. Use of network news talent and other footage is an easy, relatively low-risk way of pulling this off. News executives cringe and complain while the advertisers claim legal "fair use" of the footage. And stations are leery of appearing to censor candidates and other political advertisers by pulling the ads.

The tactic hasn't been limited to the presidential race; it's also been used by players in high-stakes Senate races. In Massachusetts, a recent ad for Democrat Elizabeth Warren uses footage of ABC News' Diane Sawyer and Chris Cuomo. An earlier ad by Republican Scott Brown included a clip of CBS News' Lesley Stahl on "60 Minutes." Both ads are positive. A Democratic group's ad using MSNBC primetime anchors to criticize Nevada Senator Dean Heller is not.

Kantar Media's CMAG counts 13 presidential and three Senate commercials that have used footage of network news coverage, plus another 21 that used footage of the candidates from the Republican presidential primary debates. Having hosted the most debates, CNN and Fox News logos dominate the debate ads.

The networks' habit of allowing free usage of primary debate footage may have unintentionally encouraged use of their talent. Collectively, these 21 ads may have bridged the pre-2012 world in which the Brokaws, Sawyers and Schieffers were off-limits and the world we now occupy in which advertisers are raiding network footage for ammunition. News divisions see a huge difference between use of debate footage and use of their talent and shows, but the ad-makers may feel they've simply hit upon a potentially powerful tool and an open barn door.

As long as swing voters and more passive late-deciders hold the key to the presidency and control of the Senate in 2012, network news footage and talent involuntarily will be in growing demand.

Elizabeth Wilner is VP of Kantar Media's CMAG, which tracks and analyzes broadcast TV advertising content, placement and spend.
Most Popular
In this article: