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A Review Of 2012 Confirms A 'Pulverizing' Level Of Political Ads

Screenshot of a 2012 TV ad, featuring actor Clint Eastwood for Mitt Romney, by the Republican group American Crossroads.MoreCloseclosemore
Screenshot of a 2012 TV ad, featuring actor Clint Eastwood for Mitt Romney, by the Republican group American Crossroads.

If you look back at the 2012 campaign as an unrelenting gusher spewing TV ads of anger and negativity, the Wesleyan Media Project is here to confirm your every grim memory.

The word used by Erika Franklin Fowler, of Wesleyan University in Connecticut: "Pulverizing."

"Not only did we see record, pulverizing amounts of advertising on the air, but we saw it concentrated, so heavily concentrated, into just a small number of markets," Fowler told me in an interview. She's a co-director of the Wesleyan project, along with Travis Ridout of Washington State University and Michael Franz of Bowdoin College.

Overall, she says, their research tallied up more than 3 million broadcast and national cable ads in 2012 – and that doesn't include the 2011 run of Republican primary ads and issue ads.

The total tab for 2012: about $1.92 billion. Compared to 2008, the previous presidential year, ad volume was up 33 percent. Ad spending skyrocketed 81 percent. Some reasons for that disparity:

The big-spending superpacs and 501c4 social welfare groups couldn't qualify for candidates-only ad rates. The Romney campaign was notably inefficient in its ad buying strategy; Romney and the outside groups supporting him wound up spending more money for fewer spots than Obama. And TV stations in battleground states know how to price their airtime.

But the presidential ad spectacle was missed by two-thirds of the country. For better or worse.

Fowler says the record numbers of ads "were crammed into just a few key battleground markets. If you were in one of those markets, you were getting inundated from May right up through election day, whereas if you were outside of those markets, you didn't really see very many presidential ads, if [any] at all."

Of the nation's 210 media markets, Fowler says just 71 drew more than 1,000 ads over the months of the presidential general-election contest.

The Wesleyan project started covering the ad wars in January 2012. Its data came from Kantar Media/CMAG, a firm that tracks the markets, costs and content of ads.

The 2012 wrap-up appears in two scholarly papers published in The Forum: A Journal of Applied Research on Contemporary Politics – parked, sadly, behind an expensive firewall. But Fowler blogged a summary for the Knight Foundation, which helped underwrite the project.

Fowler, Ridout and Franz documented different ad-buying strategies by the Obama and Romney campaigns. Romney favored a traditional approach, heavy on the 6 o'clock news and prime time. The Obama ad buyers went for niche cable buys and non-news programs. Fowler says they liked reality and talk shows.

Among the other highlights: Three-quarters of the presidential ads between May and November appealed to anger. But you already knew that. Super pacs and other outside groups ran 60 percent of the ads in the Republican primary.

That's four times more than in past presidential primaries. And whatever else the Democratic and Republican party committees did last year, they were left behind in the ad wars. They spent something more than $300 million on ads to help candidates. Outside groups spent more than $1 billion.

Like the rest of us who watch these things, Fowler wonders how interest groups will adjust their strategies. It's hard to overlook the millions of TV ad dollars that the pro-Republican groups sent swirling down the drain.

Copyright NPR 2018.

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