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Why politicians still run so many TV ads

Nancy Marshall-Genzer Dec 8, 2015
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So, if you’re running for office, you tend to do what your consultants tell you to do. And consultants like TV. It’s safe. In many cases, it’s what they’ve always done. And then there’s the money.

“Consultants – they have an incentive to sell TV to their candidates,” said Adam Sheingate, who teaches political science at Johns Hopkins University.

Sheingate decided to look into why we’re still seeing so many campaign ads on TV. His conclusion: “It’s the most lucrative part of the business from the consultants’ perspective. It provides the greatest opportunity to make money.”

Here’s how it works, according to Sheingate. A political candidate hires a consultant. The consultant says, let’s blanket the airwaves. The candidate says, OK. The consultant places the ads with TV stations, and takes a commission – 10 to 15 percent of the cost of the ad. That adds up.

“If the ad buy was a $1 million ad buy, you might be receiving  a commission of $100,000 or $150,000 for that ad buy,” Sheingate said.  

And consider this: about $4.4 billion will be spent on TV ads for the 2016 elections, according to Kantar Media. I wanted to run Sheingate’s theory by a consultant, so I found Angela McCann.  She’s Chief Operating Officer for Mentzer Media Services, a Republican consulting firm in the Maryland suburbs of Washington. 

I asked McCann: does her company tell candidates to buy TV ads because it’ll get a commission? She said, no way.

“Our goal is that our clients are successful, not that we’re just successful,” McCann said.

McCann said if she were just focused on getting as much money from TV ads as she could, she wouldn’t be winning many campaigns. And would go out of business.

“We wouldn’t be buying media for anyone anymore, if we weren’t winning,” she said.

McCann said she tells candidates to advertise on TV because it’s still the best way to reach a mass audience, and the voters who actually show up at the polls tend to be older. They still watch TV. She said sometimes the candidates themselves are  older, and are pushing for TV ads. 

You can see that in the numbers from Kantar Media

“So we’ve seen about roughly seven times more TV spots in the presidential race than we had seen at this time four years ago – that means individual occurrences of television ads,” said Elizabeth Wilner, who tracks political advertising for Kantar. 

Wilner doesn’t expect the TV advertising to let up, leading her to this conclusion: “TV will still be king in 2016. TV doesn’t have any reason to feel extremely threatened anytime soon.”

And that is something Adam Sheingate and Angela McCann actually agree on. They don’t agree on why TV is still king. But they both say it’s at the top, and unlikely to be dethroned anytime soon.