Political-Ad Battle Goes National

In Rare Off-year Play, Both Parties buy Cable Space to Bust Through Local Clutter

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WASHINGTON (AdAge.com) -- In what may be a first for off-year elections traditionally dominated by local issues, two groups are taking to national cable to get their messages through the clutter of what looks to be another record-breaking political cycle.

The Democratic-oriented September Fund and the GOP-oriented Progress for America have launched ads on CNN and Fox News. Though the spending is relatively small, it comes as local advertising markets become incredibly tight in states such as Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Kentucky and as the Democrats try to "nationalize" local races by tying Republicans to President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq.

Progress for America's spots talk about the war on terror but in a decidedly different light, hoping to portray the Democrats as not serious about national security.

The Republican National Committee also launched its own national cable TV spot over the weekend, with the ad slated to run on cable news channels. The GOP declined to detail the specific buy. While the party has occasionally run national advertising over Congressional issues including once earlier this year, the spot is the first this year to run at election time.

These advertising forays are set against a backdrop of record political ad spending. Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of TNS Media Intelligence's Campaign Media Analysis Group, said last week that where he once thought spending this year might hit $1.4 billion, it now appears to be moving toward the $1.7 billion mark. Mr. Tracey doesn't track local cable political buys, which are also heading for record territory.

About $1.7 billion was spent in 2004, a presidential-campaign year.

Mr. Tracey said that the national ad spending on an off-year election may be a first. While it isn't unusual for committees and interest groups to air spots during presidential campaigns, he said he hasn't seen political groups advertise before in off years. Spending is averaging $150 million a week, he said.

Harold Ickes, the head of the September Fund, said the group spent nationally because of the difficulty of buying local cable and the number of races across the country. The September Fund is hoping to raise $10 million to argue for a change in Congress. "It's a combination of factors, but it's partly what is available," he said. "Our time buyer and pollsters tell us cable is very cost-efficient."

The group is still running most of its ads locally. The September Fund asked eight different Democratic media shops to produce 12 ads and is running several. The Bush ad is from A-political, the shop set up by former BBDO creative Jimmy Siegel to do work for Elliott Spitzer's gubernatorial campaign in New York.

two tacks

The September Fund technically is a political committee, allowing it to urge replacement of Congress. Progress for America, because it is organized differently, can't formally advocate votes, but in ads airing on Fox News Channel and in Missouri and Ohio, it engages in issue advocacy, suggesting the war on terror and the action in Iraq is warranted. It declined to disclose spending.

All of the group's ads were done by McCarthy Marcus Hennings, Washington.

"So what's our exit strategy from Iraq? Why do our soldiers keep dying? Why is the whole world mad at us?" asks one of several ads airing from the September Fund featuring people talking to a bush. "It's kind of ridiculous to think you're going to get an answer from this bush, but it's also kind of ridiculous to think you're going to get an answer from this one," switching to a picture of President Bush before moving to a "Vote for a new Congress" graphic.

Progress for America takes a different approach to the subject: "These people want to kill us," it says, offering pictures of terrorists. "Many seem to have forgotten the evil that happened only five years ago. The war on terror is a war for our country's freedom, security and survival."
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