"You like Ike, I like Ike; everybody likes Ike for president," sang a cheerful chorus in an animated TV ad for 'Ike' Eisenhower in 1952. It was complete with a cartoon elephant and parade-leading Uncle Sam. Since then, political ads have become much sophisticated, more negative and—above all—more responsive to the ebb and flow of a typical campaign. And even in today's Internet age, where 2008 campaign advertising is expected to top out at $3 billion, the Democratic and Republican parties will still be spending most of their media dollars on broadcast and cable TV, according to Ondine Fortune, president and media director of Political-Cable.com, a Los Angeles-based media buying and placement firm.
So how does a modern political commercial get produced and distributed, and where does it go after its schedule ends? Using the 2008 presidential campaign as our model, TV Technology has come up with some answers.
Jordon Lieberman THE VIRTUAL 'WAR ROOM'
It's a long established news convention that presidential campaigns are fought and won by "war rooms." However, when it comes to the current campaign, "these 'war rooms' tend to be virtual, not real," said Jordan Lieberman, publisher of Politics Magazine. "You don't have people huddled in one physical space anymore. Instead, they stay in their usual bases of operations across the country, and connect by tele- and videoconferencing as needed."
In a presidential campaign, breaking issues can alter the nature of the battle in a single news cycle. Since the candidates are too busy stumping to head into a studio at a moment's notice, the "war room's" media team has to make do with an archive of candidate speeches, voter testimonials, stock footage and news clips. Whenever possible, new non-candidate material is shot to respond to specific events.
Throw in new voiceovers and post-production editing and you have the arsenal employed by both parties' virtual "war rooms." Working with their media consultants and ad agencies, they put together new and topical ads at a moment's notice. All they need is the approval of the campaign manager, and the new presidential political ad is good to go.
"Back in 1981, it used to take a week or longer to get a new TV ad produced and shipped to stations," said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "Today, the war rooms can get a new ad produced and shipped to TV stations overnight. If they put it up on YouTube, that takes about an hour."
Once the new political ad is ready, political parties have a number of distribution techniques at their disposal.
"They can send it out via satellite, the Web, or let a third party distributor like DG FastChannel handle it." Lieberman said. "If all else fails, the parties can always have someone deliver the ad by hand on videotape."
Larry J. Sabato AIRTIME, THE REGULAR WAY
Getting new presidential political ads to the station is not enough; they have to be aired to have an impact on the campaign. That's where media buyers like Ondine Fortune come in. They already have the necessary personal, electronic and financial relationships with stations and cable TV networks in place. All the war rooms have to do is let the buyers know what kind of regions and demographics they want to reach, and the media buyer does the rest.
"We buy airtime based on 'Gross Ratings Points' [GRPs] or 'Target Rating Points' [TRPs], which represent a percentage of the viewership during a specific time in a given program," Fortune said.
Based on Nielsen ratings, he explained that "this media math" provides an estimate of the number of times the ad is seen by an audience.
"For example, by airing 1,000 GRPs, your ad will be seen approximately 10 times," she said. "You can air these points over a few days or a week depending on how hard you need to hit your constituents."
What about speed?
Assuming that the war room rushes their money to their media buyer so that they can pay for the airtime equally quickly, Fortune says a new ad can be scheduled and on the air within 48 hours.
"Sometimes we can do it in 24 hours," she said.
There is another way for campaigns to get their ads played on TV fast; a method that is both clever and free. This is done by creating a truly controversial commercial, such as the Republican campaign's comparison of Obama to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, then giving the produced ad to the news media.
"If you make a controversial enough ad, you can be sure that it will get played for you for nothing by the news media," Lieberman said.
When asked if the parties deliberately produce controversial ads to take advantage of the news media's hunger for content, he replied in the affirmative.
"News organizations are always looking to 'feed the beast,' and sometimes presidential campaigns can use this fact to their advertising advantage," Lieberman said.
In the pre-Internet days, presidential political ads vanished after a run of a few weeks' run on television. But today, they live on at YouTube and other consumer-posted content sites. Here, they can continue to garner eyeballs for years to come. It's also possible to find these ads on historical Web sites that specialize in historical campaign ads such as www.livingroomcandiate.org and www.4president.tv, where the 1952 Ike ad cited earlier in this story can be seen.
"The Web is sort of a retirement home for political ads," said Lieberman.
As the 2008 presidential election approaches its climax, virtual war rooms in both political parties will have their hands full, furiously cutting together new ads, and then getting them to air as quickly as humanly possible. Although content is crucial, success will be measured in how little time is consumed from creation to on-air presentation; and, of course, who wins the presidency at the end of this media war.