2012 ad blitz: big money, smaller audience

Associated Press Modified: November 4, 2012 at 7:30 am •  Published: November 4, 2012
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WASHINGTON (AP) — One million ads. More than $1 billion. Ten battleground states.

Those eye-popping figures tell the story of the 2012 presidential campaign TV ad blitz — never before has so much money been spent on so many commercials aimed at so few voters.

Television ads were the primary communications tool for the campaigns of President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney, despite the gradual but persistent shift of viewers from television to the Internet.

While both teams maintained a robust social media presence and used online ads for micro-targeting voters based on their reading and shopping habits, nothing came close to the campaigns' investment in the kind of 30- and 60-second TV spots that have defined presidential campaigns for nearly half a century.

"The decline of television advertising hasn't happened, and it's not going away anytime soon," said Erika Franklin Fowler, director of the Wesleyan University Media Project which tracks campaign advertising. "TV is where you look for the persuadable voter, and the Internet is what you use to mobilize your base."

The two presidential campaigns, the political parties and their allied independent groups aired 1,015,615 ads between June 1 and Oct. 29, the Wesleyan project found — almost 40 percent more than the number of ads that ran in the same period in 2008, when Obama defeated Republican John McCain for the presidency.

The proliferation of campaign commercials was fueled by an unprecedented level of spending. The candidates, parties and groups spent more than $1.08 billion total on commercials since April according to data compiled by media trackers and provided to The Associated Press.

But the ads were directed at an ever-shrinking universe of voters.

Nine states — Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin — saw the vast majority of the campaign spots, with a 10th state, Pennsylvania, emerging late in the campaign as an advertising battleground as well.

Both sides also made smaller buys in Democratic-leaning Michigan and Minnesota, but did little else to suggest either state was seriously in play.

It's a sharp drop from 2008, when those states along with New Mexico, Missouri, Indiana, Montana, Georgia and North Dakota were considered battlegrounds and saw a heavy round of campaign commercials from the candidates and independent groups alike. This year, almost no one outside of the 10 major swing states has seen a presidential campaign ad except for a few national cable and broadcast buys.