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Archive for Monday, September 18, 2006

TV truly a mass media for candidates

In statewide races, airwaves are prime political battleground

September 18, 2006

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— A half-century ago, Democrat Adlai Stevenson, en route to his second thumping as a presidential candidate, complained that merchandising a candidate like breakfast cereal was the "ultimate indignity to the democratic process."

How times have changed.

Here it is, another election year in Kansas, and increasingly political ads are sandwiched on television between those for everything from cars to cat litter. Most statewide candidates have or soon will have television ads for the Nov. 7 general election.

Whether selling a candidate creates an "ultimate indignity" is open for debate. What isn't is that a candidate's chances for winning absent television ads are somewhere between slim and none.

"In a statewide race, I couldn't see someone winning without spending money on TV," said David Perlmutter, professor of political communications at the Kansas University School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

And in politics, as in military tactics, the goal is to get there first with the most.

"Candidates want to introduce themselves to the electorate before the campaign gets hot and heavy," said Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University. "You want as many people to like you before you complain about your opponent in order to get as much credibility as possible."

The first strike

Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius started airing ads in July and has five so far. Meanwhile, Kansans are awaiting Republican challenger Jim Barnett's first ad since the August primary.

By being first, Sebelius has unchallenged TV time to mold and shape her image - a winning strategy for her in 2002.

"You have no ad countering, no alternative claim," said Joe Aistrup, head of the Kansas State University department of political science. "By the time Barnett puts on his ads, it's going to be hard to come with a counterclaim to an ad that ran two weeks ago."

Sebelius isn't the only one with unchallenged TV time. Democrat Paul Morrison started airing two ads last week in the attorney general's race. Republican incumbent Phill Kline's campaign says his ads are coming soon.

Television remains the big cannon in the arsenal of options - radio spots, personal appearances, direct mail, door hangers, phone banks and blogs. Generally, the ads are 30-second snippets offering a couple of ideas to create an image to bolster supporters and sway fence straddlers.

"It's still the best way to reach a large number of people with your messages and images," Perlmutter said. "The goal of political advertising is having your images and phrases be what the voters remember when they go vote."

Television ads once were like shotguns - point, shoot and hit everything in sight. Now it's almost niche marketing. What someone in Wichita sees may be different from what a viewer in Atchison sees, or even a viewer at 6 p.m. versus one at 10 p.m. in the same town.

"TV has become more targeted over the years. Audiences are more fragmented and smaller," Perlmutter said. "Every election has a flavor of the month as a target group."

Attention-grabbers

Sebelius' ads focus on what she says she has done rather than how she might deal with problems - such as growing Medicaid costs - in a second term.

"If you are Sebelius, the past probably looks better than the future," Aistrup said. "To address those issues, you have to come with some answers you don't have at this point in time."

Morrison's ads introduce a candidate not well-known statewide and inject an element of humor, a growing trend in political ads.

"It's a realization you have to grab the viewers' attention to get them to watch it," Beatty said.

Barnett's commercials will be the first real impression many people will get of him, said David Guth, KU associate dean of journalism.

"He's clearly is playing catch-up," Guth said. "Name recognition isn't everything, but it is important, especially in races where issues aren't as well-known or as well-defined."

Just how awash Kansans will be in political ads depends on the campaigns.

"If Barnett's ads are effective at the beginning in building up support, we will see an intense ad campaign," Aistrup said.

He said television ads in the attorney general's race "will be as important as anything in what appears to be a close race."

Television ads mean cash upfront. That's when strategy becomes important. There's as much jockeying about when to book an ad as there is about what it says.

"One strategy is that the ads have more impact closer to the election among the undecideds, but the risk is that many have already made up their minds by then," Guth said.

Even if there's ample money, it's wise to keep something ready to counter an opponent's last-minute ad.

"One of the worst things is your opponent runs an attack ad and you're either too slow, too inept or too broke to respond effectively," Perlmutter said.

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