Election 2012 Advertising: Nastier and More Invasive Than Ever?

Article  by  Natalie HIDEG  •  Published 29.02.2012  •  Updated 29.03.2012
[NEWS] Advertising expenditures for the 2012 U.S. presidential race have skyrocketed more than ever before. Thanks in part to new finance laws, more money is available to spend on negative advertising, and campaigns are more pointedly targeting voters’ Web-surfing habits and offline lives.

The United States is in the red by more than $15 trillion, and some politicos are up in arms about the debt. But presidential campaigners and their friends have no problem burning through millions on advertising in their bid to occupy the White House. While the amount spent on election advertising pales in comparison to the U.S. national debt, the irony is not lost on some political observers.
Presidential candidates have already spent the lion’s share of their campaign funds – thanks to generous donations – on advertising. Top spenders President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor and Republican candidate Mitt Romney have already spent $63 million and $55 million, respectively. Before 2010, Federal Election Committee (FEC) official rules limited contributions made to political campaigns and Political Action Committees (PACs), private groups organized with the purpose of electing candidates. PACs were able to receive up to $5,000 in contributions from individuals, families or union members, and it was illegal for corporations and unions to donate directly to the PACs. But in a landmark case, Citizen’s United v. the FEC, the Supreme Court ruled against government limitations on corporate expenditures. After the January 2010 decision, corporations and unions were given the right to donate unlimited funds to PACs in support of a candidate, so long as the candidate and the PAC did not coordinate the use of those funds. Contributions to campaigns are still limited at $2,500, but the FEC doesn’t take legal action against every case of questionable contributions. Enter the Super PAC, a new, more powerful genre of political action committee backed primarily by large corporations with vested interests in candidates’ economic policies. 2012 has seen the creation of 343 Super PACs, as of Feb. 28, and Super PACs have raised more than $130 million, dropping more than $61 million primarily on political ads. Not even halfway through the 2012 election cycle, Super PACs have already outspent all nine PACs from the 2008 election. The biggest spender, pro-Romney Super PAC “Restore Our Future,” has shelled out $25 million in election spending to date, while total non-campaign spending in 2008, mainly from Super PACs, was only $34 million.
Unlimited contributions mean more money is spent on negative advertising. Kenneth Goldstein, president of Kantar Media CMAG, a company that tracks content and targeting of political advertising, told the Daily Beast that the sheer number of attack ads in 2012 surpasses those of past elections. “I have absolutely never seen television advertising so negative in a Republican presidential primary,” he said. Veteran Advertising Executive Jerry Della Femina said that attack ads during the primary season are counterproductive to the overall Republican cause; in their efforts to win the nomination, “They will eventually get [Obama] reelected,” he told the Daily Beast. ” Former House speaker and Republican candidate Newt Gingrich has warned that Republicans are turning the primaries into a “circular firing squad.

Mitt Romney has attempted to remind voters about Gingrich’s tumultuous congressional record – he was voted out of his position as Speaker based on charges of ethics violations. Towards that end, Romney ran an ad consisting of a 25-second clip of former NBC newscaster Tom Brokaw reporting on this event.

"History Lesson" / Official Youtube website for Mitt Romney

In response to Romney’s negative ads, the ultra-conservative Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum broadcast a spot attacking Romney’s “negative attack machine.” The commercial tells viewers that Romney spent $20 million attacking other Republican candidates to divert attention away from his own voting record which doesn’t reflect true Republican values.

"Rombo" / Official Youtube website for Rick Santorum
Campaigns are not the only groups going negative – Super PACs are joining in the fun. American LP, a Super PAC that indirectly advocates Libertarian presidential candidate and Texas Senator Ron Paul, aired a comical spot with Romney speaking in French about the 2002 Winter Olympics. Romney was president of the Olympic Games Organizing Committee at the time. Instead of providing English subtitles that translated Romney’s actual discourse, the subtitles espoused liberal policies and portrayed Romney as a flip-flopper who doesn’t embrace conservative values. Some say the ad was misleading because not all viewers would realize the subtitles were incorrect.

Political satirist Stephen Colbert of “The Colbert Report” ridicules Super PAC spending and has created his own Super PAC, “Americans for a better tomorrow, tomorrow.” Despite its satirical nature, it has raised more than $1 million to elect Colbert to the office of “President of the United States of America of South Carolina.” (Colbert is from South Carolina). His Super PAC aired its own spots: one accusing Colbert of running attack ads against himself so that voters will think he is not coordinating with his Super PAC, (FEC rules prohibit candidates from coordinating with Super PACs) and another promising that, with more donation money, they will counter negative advertising prevalent in the primary elections by running even more negative advertising[+] NoteAll ads can be viewed here.X [1].
Campaigns are also using their funds to take a more targeted approach toward voters. Marketing to a specific audience is more difficult on T.V. where Republicans and Democrats watch the same spot, so campaigns aim their ads at populations based on the needs of the state as a whole. In Michigan, home of the car-manufacturing city of Detroit, Romney concentrated on helping those in economic hardship and on job creation in his ad “Growing up.” In recent primaries held in socially conservative southern states, Rick Santorum’s ads lauded him for being “rock solid on values issues.” In the 2008 election, Internet technology came into play; the Obama campaign optimized its use of Facebook and Twitter, portraying the 46-year-old presidential nominee as modern and aware of younger voter's needs. The attention he paid to the Internet generation was in part what helped him to take the election. If 2008 was the social media election, 2012 has already been labeled the data election. This year, campaigns are hiring consulting firms to help them to more pointedly market their candidate to the electorate based on where they live, their voting record, and which websites they visit. New online advertising “microtargeting” technology is increasingly being employed by the Republican primary candidates, including the incumbent president. Here’s how it works: marketing firms like Targeted Victory or Campaign Grid deposit cookies on a user’s computer after he or she makes a purchase or visits a Web site; they then “tag” users with a number, and match that information with offline data – what type of credit card he or she uses, or what kind of church he or she attends – and with voting records. Campaigns buy the final database to market their candidate to voters based on the information.

Ad selection can distinguish between Tea Party conservatives – concerned with national debt and economic problems, as well as crucial social issues such as homosexuality and abortion – and the more moderate members of the Republican Party. One of Mitt Romney’s ads for conservatives explains to voters how he will “save the soul of America,” but in another he is shown as a family man.

Widespread use of this type of technology is on the rise. Republican National Committee on Technology Chairman Saul Anuzis told the New York Times that, “Spending on digital political ads [is expected] to reach 10 to 15% of campaign budgets in the 2012 election season.” However, these numbers are still relatively low compared to what campaigns are expected to spend on advertisements and home mailings. For the moment, advertisers prefer to hit hardest with commercials in the days leading up to a state’s primary election; by focusing on the voting tendencies of the state as a whole, they can ensure that the information will reach voters less inclined to surf the Web.
Campaign and Super PAC spending has turned the 2012 election into a race to “microtarget” the most voters and churn out the most damaging ads. Whether this will help or hinder them in the run for the White House will become clearer as the nominee is finally chosen and the winner heads off against Obama. Depending on the path chosen by the Obama campaign to accept or reject these new marketing strategies, the General Election results could indicate their effectiveness; if these methods prove successful, they will set a precedent for elections to come.

Photo credits:
-davelawrence8 / flickr.
  • 1. All ads can be viewed here.
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