In a recent article for the New Yorker, media writer Ken Auletta examined the increased difficulty of cutting through the advertising clutter, and how the advertising industry is changing its approaches and their business models in reaction to these challenges. These changes are obviously important for economic reasons--1 trillion dollars is spent worldwide annually on advertising, half of it in the U.S. But the changes are also important for us politicos to consider, especially those who kvetched about how much money went to the firms of Joe Trippi and Bob Schrum. What Auletta describes is an advertising industry that will continue to move away from advertising and into marketing, leaving behind the business model still used by political consultants, and making it more difficult and more expensive than ever to reach prospective voters and educate them about candidates and public policy.
Nothing is more crucial to a major election campaign than the television advertising. Sure, the candidate has to be good, she has to raise enough money to be competitive (mostly to pay for television), the underlying demographics and issue dynamics have to combine to create a competitive political environment, and the other components of the campaign--press, field, scheduling, etc--must be effective. But in a statewide or national campaign, it's usually the effectiveness of the television ads and the number of times the ads are seen by the target demographics that have the greatest effect on the final results. A standard assumption among campaign professionals is that in a close race a strong field effort can take you from 47% to 50%, but without television you'll never get to 47%. Television advertising usually accounts for at least 60% of any campaign budget, and voter contact (including other forms of advertising and message delivery such as direct mail) should ideally make up 80% or more of a campaign budget.
On some blogs people have been calling for a new way of paying consultants to--depending on the person's perspective--redirect resources into other areas of voter contact, to keep money out of the pockets of supposedly undeserving consultants, or just to save the campaign money. One of the favorite solutions offered up is fee-based payments, which is in fact gaining support in corporate advertising. An ad executive Auletta focuses on addresses one obvious problem with looking to hourly-fees as the panacea: “I sometimes worry that clients are paying us for the hours we spend working on projects rather than the worth of the ideas.” But there are plenty of other problems specific to political campaigns that don't have corollaries in commercial advertising.