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Political ads surge, broadcasters benefit in 2010

Thursday, October 28, 2010 | 7:32 p.m. CDT; updated 10:17 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 28, 2010

SEDALIA — Josh Vannoy has heard the complaint from customers bringing TVs to his repair shop. He's even heard it when delivering a brand new TV. The problem: the persistent static of this year's political advertisements.

To gripe about the onslaught of ads has become an American election tradition. But this year, people really have more to complain about.

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Even while exploiting the Internet and new media to sway voters, political campaigns in the midterm election are relying heavily on old-fashioned TV ads, which are capable of reaching all parts of the electorate, whether it wants to be reached or not.

Ads in U.S. House and Senate races have risen 50 percent; in gubernatorial races, they've more than doubled, according to figures from the Wesleyan Media Project, which analyzes ads.

With so much money being spent, no part of the day or the dial is now exempt. At one typical television station in central Missouri, site of several fiercely contested races, the spots start with the 5 a.m. "News at Sunrise," continue through "The Price is Right" in midmorning, "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" in the afternoon, and on through the late night talk shows.

The political ad blitz has been an economic stimulus for broadcasters. In October alone, campaign commercials are expected to account for 30 percent of local television stations' revenues — putting politics ahead of auto dealers, cell phone companies and all other sectors, according to the Television Bureau of Advertising, an industry trade group.

For television viewers, however, the barrage of ads accusing politicians of being out-of-touch, corrupt liars can get overwhelming.

When Vannoy recently delivered a television to the home of an elderly woman, she had one pressing question.

"She wanted to know where the mute button is," said Vannoy, 33, the general manager of A-1 Television Service of Sedalia. "She said, 'I just mute it when all the commercials come on, because I'm so sick of the negative ads.'"

The central Missouri region where Vannoy works has been blanketed with ads for competitive races for the U.S. Senate, House, state offices and several ballot initiatives. Those spots display the very latest in the art of provoking outrage.

Democratic Senate candidate Robin Carnahan is "hurting seniors." Her Republican rival, Roy Blunt, is "sticking it to us." An ad targeting longtime Democratic Rep. Ike Skelton shows him uttering the bleeped-out phrase "stick it up your a--." Meanwhile, his Republican challenger, Vicky Hartzler, "walked away from our troops."

What has caused the ad surge?

Mostly, it is the large number of competitive races. As many as 100 House seats are in play as Republicans seek to win back a majority from Democrats. Add to that 37 Senate races plus 37 gubernatorial contests and the result is an advertising influx in heavily populated places such as California, Texas and Illinois that don't typically see many commercials in presidential elections because they lean solidly Democratic or Republican.

A bevy of hot issues — the federal health care overhaul, climate control legislation and state budget cuts — have ensured that business groups, environmentalists and public employee unions have a stake in the election.

And it's easier than ever for those groups to get involved. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this year opened the way for corporations and unions to run ads about candidates and struck down a law that banned them from sponsoring issue ads in the final days before an election.

About $2.4 billion was spent on political ads in 2006, and about $2.7 billion in 2008, said the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which monitors ad buys. This year, the group projects that total to reach $3 billion.

Local television stations for the first time are expected to reap 10 percent of their total annual revenues from ads about candidates.

"We were worried given the economy that there wouldn't be enough money to fuel the advertising" this election, said Jack Poor, vice president of strategic planning at the Television Bureau of Advertising. Instead, "we're going at record rates."

Rosemary Bennett, general sales manager at Denver's KOA-AM Newsradio talk station, said her station has had to turn away some potential clients. "A lot of regular advertisers have just gone dark in October" because of higher rates, Bennett said.

Part of the growth in political ads comes from outside interest groups. One analysis found that the number of interest group ads in gubernatorial races rose by 227 percent from a similar period in 2006.

In Colorado, a neck-and-neck U.S. Senate race and affordable media rates have made the contest tops for out-of-state political spending. Ad buys there indicate that, on average, each targeted voter will see a commercial 74 times this week.

In northeast Ohio's 16th Congressional District, outside groups were advertising more than the candidates themselves, first-term Democratic Rep. John Boccieri and Republican challenger Jim Renacci. And the ads were more brutal. A union-funded ad declares: "There are lemons and then there's used car millionaire Jim Renacci."

"There's viciousness and meanness in all of them," said Larry White, 60, who runs a barber shop in Wooster, Ohio.

But the negative ads can be effective if they provide information of concern to voters, said Ken Goldstein, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies political ads.

"They're not destroying our democracy; they're not evil by nature," Goldstein said. "That being said, they're not automatically effective."

But while some ads work, others can leave a voter reeling. "It's just like you're exhausted at the end of every political season," said Victor Santiago, 42, a retail supervisor in Miami, where gubernatorial candidates Rick Scott and Alex Sink are bludgeoning each other.


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