Is Donald Trump the death knell for political TV ads?

Donald Trump seems impervious to negative TV ads, and he gets a mother lode of news media attention for free. His rivals and their allies vastly outspend him on televised spots, with little to show for it other than a sad withdrawal speech. Does the Trump phenomenon mean TV advertising is losing its grip in the presidential race?

Certainly, Trump and the passions he has aroused are reshaping the political landscape, and campaign advertising along with it. He has 7.4 million Twitter followers, which earn him enormous public notice, and he went for months without running a single TV commercial.

So, a second question arises: Is Trump a harbinger of a permanent change in how candidates reach the public, or a temporary aberration?

Regardless of Trump, the trend is away from traditional media. While TV ads remain a strong presence on the campaign scene, their power is slowly receding. "The effectiveness of TV is starting to be questioned," said Kip Cassino, executive vice-president for research at Borrell Associates, a media consulting firm.

Right now, the shift in ad spending seems small, although the direction is clear. Borrell projects that digital will take up one-tenth of overall political ad expenditures this election cycle, up from a pittance in 2008 (the presidential race gets about 40 percent of the estimated $11 billion paid-media total this year). But come the 2020 election season, digital will triple its share, the firm said.

Digital advertising has the virtue of better finding a candidate's supporters, with e-mail blasts, website banner ads and social media. Of course, volume of media, be it on air or online, does not necessarily equal successful persuasion.

"If you're a Trump supporter already, social media won't make you more of a Trump supporter," said John Geer, a Vanderbilt University political science professor.

What's clear, though, is that political commercials on broadcast TV (some two-thirds of the election ad total) and on cable (another 10 percent) have displayed profound shortcomings this season.

According to an Advertising Age tally from consultancy Kantor Media's CMAG unit, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had the biggest ad push -- a monster $80 million between his campaign and independent groups backing him. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio came in second, with $70 million. Both Republican hopefuls have now dropped out of the race.

Real estate magnate Trump, however, comes in a distant eighth in the ad spending sweepstakes, with $17.5 million, almost all of it from his own pocket. And he only recently began advertising. His main competitor for the GOP nomination, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, is at $32 million. Anti-Trump ads, almost $23 million worth from organizations like the anti-tax Club for Growth, eclipsed the billionaire's outlay.

While Cruz has a double-digit poll lead over Trump going into Tuesday's Wisconsin primary, the developer is campaigning hard in the state and leads Cruz in the national delegate count, 736 to 463, with 1,237 needed to capture the nomination.

The Republican front-runner is upending traditional TV advertising in two ways:

Trump receives massive free publicity.By the reckoning of research outfit mediaQuant, as reported in The New York Times, the mogul has enjoyed $2 billion worth of gratis exposure, thanks to news reports on his every remark. This dwarfs what every other candidate, Democrat or Republican, has received.

Negative ads don't hurt him. At least for the moment. For instance, one outside group, Our Principles PAC, has launched an ad blitz criticizing Trump for seeming to incite violence at his rallies. Trouble is, these spots may only be reinforcing the views of voters who already dislike Trump, and converting no one. He already has earned the disapproval of a big chunk of the electorate, but his disaffected base remains solidly in his corner. "Up to now, this hasn't damaged Trump because he lives in a closed aquarium," Borrell's Cassino said.

If Trump does become the GOP's standard-bearer in the fall, things may even out media-wise, between him and his Democratic opponent. This now seems likely to be former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who's determined to spend a lot on political TV ads. "In the general election," said Tobe Berkovitz, professor advertising at Boston University, "both sides will get a lot of free media." Campaign news stories will be ubiquitous on the airwaves.

And there's no telling when a negative ad will find resonance, typically by getting a lot of news coverage. In 2004, Democratic nominee John Kerry suffered when news outlets ran a lot of stories that stemmed from anti-Kerry ads. One ad questioned his service in Vietnam as the commander of a U.S. Navy swift boat (thus undermining his heroic claim of courage under fire), and another showed him windsurfing (a rich guy's hobby, portraying him as lacking the common touch).

If such a spot does strike a chord this year, it may prove to be political TV ads' last hurrah, or simply an example of how the old ways persist. "TV's mass appeal may not be what it once was," Borrell's Cassino said, "but it will remain a major factor because that's what a lot of people are used to."

  • Larry Light

    Larry Light is a veteran financial editor and reporter who has worked for the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Business Week, Money, AdviceIQ and Newsday.