For Romney, Obama Camps, Ad Wars About Money — And Buzz

BY Meena Ganesan  October 15, 2012 at 3:00 PM EST

It’s no surprise that ad buys by presidential candidates and their affiliated groups are costly — some might even say astronomical — reaching even greater numbers in swing states, where TV viewers have become intimate with every shape, size and form of campaign ad.

Since April, more than 825,000 ads for the presidential candidates, totaling almost $550 million, have aired in battleground states.

But while President Obama’s re-election campaign has overwhelmingly accounted for spending on the Democratic side, super PACs — not the Romney campaign — on the Republican side are dominating.

On Monday’s Morning Edition, NPR correspondent Peter Overby reported on how 27 outside groups are collectively outspending the Romney campaign 2 to 1.

What is perhaps even more surprising: the ads that never aired, barely aired or only aired in Washington.

Elizabeth Wilner, vice president of Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, or CMAG, calls it the “play for free lunch” — a proverbial advertising scheme illustrated most recently in President Obama’s “Big Bird” ad.

The ad, embedded below, is a sardonic pitch by the president’s campaign to capitalize on Romney’s promise in the first presidential debate to cut PBS.


While it may not get much traction on commercial television, Wilner cites its success from cocktail chatter, gained by millions of dollars in untold publicity on network and cable show news coverage.

She says the possibility of a free publicity spree is the “most popular” reason for ads that never or barely air on television.

Using journalist Bob Woodward’s new book as its thesis, an ad announced Sept. 23 by the Romney campaign called “Mute Button” told an anecdote where the president supposedly calls Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who answer but then mute the phone.


Super PAC Priorities USA Action, responsible for the barely-run ad attacking Romney’s 47 percent comment, was also responsible for the spot that tried to link Romney to a steelworker’s wife who died of cancer. It also only ran a handful of times.


Then, in a series of ads only run in Washington in early September, the Romney campaign aimed to target the D.C. collective, saying the president could only think small. Later, the campaign would try to woo women voters in an ad called “Dear Daughter,” which received much media attention despite airing only in the District.


Watch Monday’s NewsHour for more on political ad wars taking the nation’s airwaves and a discussion with NPR’s Peter Overby.

For more election cycle coverage, visit NewsHour’s politics page. Plus, make your own political ad with NewsHour’s political ad maker.