WARREN, Ohio – As the fall campaign gets underway in earnest and both sides launch increasingly negative television ads, both John McCain and Barack Obama are pursuing a similar two-pronged strategy on the airwaves.
One set of commercials airs in heavy rotation on network affiliates in battleground states across the country, their incessant repetition aimed at penetrating the consciousness of casual voters.
Then there are the other ads – if they can even be called that.
Aimed at driving the conversation online and on cable news – where the day-in, day-out campaign is increasingly fought – these spots amount to video press releases.
They may be designed to support the campaign’s message of the day, respond to a breaking news story or hit back against the opposition’s attack.
But what they all have in common is that, despite being released to the media as ads that will ostensibly air on television, they receive little or no time on the airwaves as actual commercials.
Anecdotally, an entire morning spent watching nothing but network television programming on the near-saturated Youngstown and Cleveland affiliates would suggest this to be the case. The national and local morning shows, followed by women-oriented talk programs, feature a steady diet of the same spots over and over, with little deviation.
The empirical evidence affirms the observation.
Take last Sunday, September 14.
According to Evan Tracey, head of the ad-tracking Campaign Media Analysis Group, Barack Obama aired a total of 1,589 commercials nationwide that day.
Of these, 1,146 were Obama’s “It’s Over,” an ad that mocks McCain’s claim that special interests won’t have sway when he’s president by pointing out that the Republican nominee has many advisers or are or were lobbyists. Another 310 were of Obama’s “Real Change,” which features him talking to the camera and outlining his differences with Republicans.
On the same day, McCain aired 1,490 ads. 745 were his “Original Mavericks,” a spot designed to portray the Arizona senator and his running mate Sarah Palin as anti-establishment crusaders. McCain also showed “Temple” 544 times, an ad mocking Obama’s convention speech and tagging him as just another liberal senator.
Not on the air Sunday, however, were the very ads that have been shaping much of the recent campaign coverage.
That retro ad from Obama featuring the Zack Morris-sized cell phone, primitive computer and Rubik’s cube aimed at framing McCain as old and out of touch?
Didn’t air once, according to Tracey.
Those two ads meant to garner sympathy for Palin as a victim of sexist attacks, the first featuring a pack of wolves and the other noting Joe Biden had called her “good-looking?”
Never ran on tv, said Tracey.
“These ads are basically for the press’s consumption,” he observed. “They’re lobbing discussion items into the echo chamber with the goal of getting them to debate the most negative caricature they can come up with.”
And the campaigns, Tracey continued, recognize that what’s likely to get play online and on conflict-driven cable news stations aren’t substantive issue disagreements.
“They put out all the things people can latch onto as emotional. For Obama, that’s sex ed and for McCain that’s that he can’t use a computer.”
All of this costs next to nothing. Thanks to modern technology, it costs the campaigns little to quickly crank out the spots and pop them on YouTube. And, with websites and TV stations playing them for free, they don’t bother spending much if any cash to put them on the air.
Both campaigns are guarded about their advertising strategy, reluctant to talk about it for fear of even offering a peak of their playbook to the opposition. Neither offered comment for his story.
However, a handful of seasoned political pros from both parties who are sitting this presidential race out explained the bifurcated ad approach taken by McCain and Obama, describing it as a result of a media beast that is now ever-more sprawling, fragmented, impatient and video-hungry.
“In the past, campaigns would do the ‘show me’ buys specifically designed to generate free press and help win the daily news cycle,” said Chris Lehane, a top aide on Al Gore’s 2000 campaign. “Eventually, the press caught on and stopped covering the ads.”
Now, there are two factors at play that keep them alive, Lehane said.
“The ads have become far more provocative and entertaining, making it really hard to ignore them,” he noted, citing McCain’s now-famous ad in August comparing Obama as a vacuous celebrity a la Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.
Further, Lehane observed, “there is such a comprehensive media environment between the traditional media and online media that these pieces get picked up and end up impacting the daily news cycle.”
“Think news cycles within news cycles - like the small hands of a clock turning the bigger hands - and that is how these spots work.”
Heath Thompson, a Republican media consultant, agreed, suggesting the tail is now wagging the dog.
"With cable news stations, talk radio, and blogs driving news coverage like never before, the advent of the 'video press release' was inevitable,” he said in an email. “They provide ready-made content for internet, radio and cable. And because those mediums now drive network coverage as much as the other way around, it allows campaigns to get their message out more than they ever would of off a print release.”
And the difference between a real spot and one that will never actually have any points -- or purchased air time -- behind it is immaterial, Thompson said, because of the expansive and voracious media.
“Whether or not a specific spot is a video press release or real tv spot is a sound only dogs can hear (And maybe a few well informed reporters). As long as they get covered, it doesn't matter. And today's news cycle in presidential campaigns is too competitive for them not to.”
Further, Americans no longer get their news on politics or anything else from three network newscasts and their local paper. The proliferation of outlets which influence the electorate has spurred the campaigns to produce ads that are more likely to break through the conventional clutter and cross the all-important threshold from serious news to pop culture.
“The ‘computer skills’ and ‘good looking’ comments are great fodder for cable outlets and shows on ‘E,’ said Scott Howell, a longtime GOP ad maker. “These things also make for good parody on the late night talk shows – I can see skits on SNL and jokes by Letterman and Leno based on these items.”
With all the competing demands on voters’ time and the many mediums from which they now get information, the campaigns are open to any avenue that get their preferred narrative across.
“The goal in all of this – get noticed,” added Howell. “Make news. Get into people’s living rooms, be the topic of conversation at work. Get noticed and you impact the debate. Impact the debate and you move numbers.”
There is a difference, also, between the nature and timing of the message each campaign wants to convey.
Starting with free media, they can cement negative frames against the opposition, ingraining in the minds of voters the notion that, say, Al Gore is a serial exaggerator, George W. Bush is a dimwitted frat boy and John F. Kerry an effete snob.
“As much as consultants hate to admit this - the free press has a greater impact than the traditional paid media -- and even more so in today's mult-media age,” said Lehane. “Thus, the use of the provocative and compelling internet ad is used to help drive the storyline in the campaign as there is a recognition that the narrative is inherently defined, shaped and driven by free media.”
If the narrative holds and voters are seen as susceptible to believing the line of attack, a real ad campaign could follow along these lines.
It’s a mentality of, ‘lets throw these five things against the wall and see what sticks,’ said Howell.
Both Howell and Lehane concur that the made-for-free media ads provide a safer avenue to get a harsher, more hard-edged message in circulation without spending precious dollars on an ad campaign that could also drive up the negatives of the candidate on offense.
“Campaigns sometimes feel constrained about the character attack spots and how the broader public will respond,” Lehane noted. “Thus, the Internet ads serve as a way to do the character attacks. It’s the garrotte approach as opposed to the bludgeon over the head.”