Presidential campaigns are dramatically crowding out TV ad space

Kimberly Adams Jan 31, 2020
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Six of the remaining Democratic presidential hopefuls at the seventh Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 14, 2020. Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

Presidential campaigns are dramatically crowding out TV ad space

Kimberly Adams Jan 31, 2020
Six of the remaining Democratic presidential hopefuls at the seventh Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 14, 2020. Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images
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Spare a thought for the people of Iowa. Folks who have lived though campaign season before probably thought they knew what to expect — political ads just about all the time, on every channel. But 2020 has been extreme.

“All the local TV, all the local spots here are consumed — probably this year more than any year — with political spots, because there’s so many candidates,” said Scott Politte of Waukee, Iowa. “It’s the worst that I can remember.”

More than 100,000 political TV ads have aired in Iowa in the run-up to the caucuses, 65% more than in 2016, according to Wesleyan Media Project co-director Erika Franklin Fowler. Ad spending nationwide is double what it was at this point in the 2016 race.

“I’m sort of out of adjectives for description of 2020,” she said. “There is just an astonishing number of ads on air this year, and that is primarily due to the two billionaires in the race.”

One of them, Michael Bloomberg, is blanketing airwaves across the country. When he enters a TV market, ad rates go up by an average of about 22%, according to Advertising Analytics. The other, Tom Steyer, has focused on early voting states, spending more than $17 million of a record $61 million on TV campaign ads in Iowa alone.

“I’m sort of out of adjectives for description of 2020.”

Erika Franklin Fowler, co-director, Wesleyan Media Project

All that means Politte has pretty much given up running TV ads for his car dealership, Stivers Ford Lincoln, outside Des Moines. He knows that when campaigns roll into town flush with donor cash, it’s not worth fighting for the suddenly expensive ad slots.

“It’s just a frustration, but it’s a known frustration, that our ads get bumped,” he said. “And if you’ve done this for any length of time, you’re prepared for it.”

Instead, Politte buys banner ads online or sponsors weather segments that don’t get pre-empted by campaign ads.

Franklin Fowler at Wesleyan says the advertising squeeze is already going national. “It’s very unusual, too, to be seeing advertising outside of Iowa, or New Hampshire or South Carolina, at this point in the campaign,” she said.

Even the deepest pocketed national advertisers are scrambling to adjust their media strategies.

“They will move their TV spots out of specific programming—on the local stations that are high demand by the politicians—and move those spots to other media such as local radio or cable TV,” said Thomas Bridge, CEO of media consultancy and audit firm Media Management Inc. , which works with some of the biggest companies in the U.S.

Many of Bridge’s clients started planning more than a year ago how their ads could rise above the election fray. But even the most prepared among them didn’t expect this much competition for ad time. 

“Nobody could have seen this level of activity coming 18 months ago,” he said.

The good news for Iowans is that there are only a few more days of political ads before Monday’s caucuses. As for the rest of us? The deluge is coming soon.

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