So far, this hasn't been television's election. CBS Chairman and CEO Les Moonves might gloat otherwise, but media conglomerate C-suiters are earnings-obsessed. Practitioners and observers of political TV advertising are outcome-obsessed. While the former folks grin over $323 million in presidential TV ad spending so far, the latter folks see mounting evidence that TV isn't getting it done the way it used to.
Marco Rubio, who deemphasized organizing in favor of TV and other media, both paid and earned, is now out of the race. Remember, Rubio was the first candidate to reserve ad time, his made-for-TV campaign, grabbing an opportunity for press coverage in June about ads that wouldn't air till November.
The presidential candidate who spent most by far on TV failed awhile back. Even now, more than three weeks after Jeb Bush dropped out, the $77 million in TV ads on his behalf still accounts for almost 25% of all TV ad spend in the presidential race to date.
And Republican frontrunner Donald Trump rolls on, seemingly impervious to TV ads attacking him and largely eschewing ads of his own. He has spent less on TV than any other candidate still in the race, plus a few who aren't (I'm lumping super PAC activity in with their corresponding candidates). He has aired a mere eight unique commercials; his Republican opponents have aired several dozen apiece. Some of those eight commercials got truly astonishing amounts of media coverage. While an unsuccessful Rubio applied data science to optimize his earned media, Trump is going by gut and guerrilla tactics to optimize his.
Meanwhile, the air war to take Trump out is showing no signs of success. Trump isn't just the focus of more negative TV ad spend than any other presidential candidate, Republican or Democrat. According to CMAG's Mitchell West, more money has been spent on TV ads containing anti-Trump messages than on advertising about any other messages tracked by CMAG except for foreign policy/terrorism at #1 and healthcare at #2. After anti-Trump at #3, attacks on President Obama rank #4 in amount of spend; social issues (women's rights, abortion, civil rights, gay marriage, drugs) rank #5.
This line graph maps the rapid ramp-up of anti-Trump TV ad spending since the original Super Tuesday on March 1:
Looking ahead, you have to assume that anti-Trump forces among the GOP will be taking stock of whether to continue to invest so heavily on TV or divert money to other means to achieve their aims. As Katie Packer of Our Principles PAC, the lead anti-Trump advertiser, tweeted last night to former White House press secretary Dan Pfeiffer, "not possible to outspend Trump and the wall to wall coverage he's had for 9 months." (Pfeiffer's tweet: "If Trump wins FL despite being outspent 8-1 does it say more about efficacy of TV ads or the arguments used in those specific ads?")
But like a candidate who's down for now, can TV bounce back, prove its effectiveness and justify its ongoing lionized share of the ad budget? The general election looms for TV advertising as Ohio hangs out there for #neverTrump: as a possible inflection point, with the jury still out.
CMAG's Mitchell West contributed to this column.
Source: Kantar Media