DRTV Often Loses at Election Time

Every four years, our nation experiences a phenomenon. Kicked into high gear by the summer’s Republican and Democratic national conventions and continuing through early November, presidential political campaign advertising pervades the broadcast airwaves.

During a presidential campaign, direct response television advertisers and their media agencies can’t count on the givens of the business – the ability to negotiate to ensure spot clearance, the probability of a balanced testing ground and the flexibility to plan a media strategy a month or more in advance. In a political campaign environment, these norms fly out the window, especially in the broadcast network arena.

Federal legislation guaranteeing that presidential ad campaigns receive the lowest rates and equal access to time greatly affects advertisers using local broadcast. Consider insurance companies that are regulated as to the states where they can underwrite, or local and regional retailers, for instance. They can be all but shut out of markets where the political environment is hot.

Advertisers that typically test during the fourth quarter in preparation for a first-quarter rollout also face challenges. Even if they do get clearance, they can’t rely on a statistically valid testing environment.

This year, for example, unexpectedly close races in states such as Florida and Michigan completely turned even the best-planned tests upside down.

Add to the mix that many media pundits’ viewers begin to tune out as negative campaigns begin, and you have a media environment unlike any other.

That’s the bad news. Still, for many industries, there can be an upside.

Because some retailers have retracted from the market – for various economic reasons, because of the growing holiday e-tail economy or because they feared the political campaign scenario – there are opportunities to be had. Some advertisers have been gaining clearance and even getting deals when it was speculated that the Olympics and the elections would present an issue. The keys to success are planning, contingency plans and persistence.

Advertisers that stand to fare well during this uncertain time are the ones whose media agencies stand by them, calling stations daily to inquire about clearance. As in any business, it comes down to relationships. The smart marketers are the ones that have built in contingency plans.

Case in point: Florida has become a swing state, with Al Gore and George W. Bush pumping millions into television ads, virtually closing the state to other advertisers. Many of those that counted on the Florida market to test their programs were at a loss to revise their plans in time. Others knew their markets well enough to turn on a dime to switch to other states with demographics that still met their testing goals.

Smart marketers – those that will survive the election months relatively unscathed – are the ones that have considered the important questions well in advance.

They will have researched their options regarding cable and broadcast and will have made decisions accordingly.

They will have considered whether their product or service is movable across borders in the case of a lockout, as in the top five battleground states of Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Missouri.

Combined spending in those states for the two parties has been upward of $43 million. And this does not include spending for the independent candidates.

Additionally, they will have thought about how reliant they are on fourth-quarter testing and will have speculated about whether tests could be postponed.

If they were planning a rollout during the election months, they will be aware of the volatility of results and how they will affect their overall plans.

And, finally, they will have considered what leverage their media agency will bring to the table in terms of staying on top of constantly changing conditions.

Few things, other than a natural disaster, catastrophe or major corporate recall, can have the type of impact as a presidential election. The fallout of campaign 2000 remains to be seen, but marketers and their media agencies that considered the opportunities and the risks, and planned accordingly, will be more likely to have fared well.

By understanding the critical elements, marketers that were advised of the risks early on – and that communicate daily with their media agencies – will have timely, accurate information from which to make meaningful media decisions.

In only a few weeks, you will be able to read the results of those that prepared well and those that did not.

Joyce van Ravenswaay is executive vice president and general manager at Direct Response Media, Wayne, PA.

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