Missing Number in TV vs. Web Ads Story

Los Angeles Times a puzzle piece short

Meg James at the Los Angeles Times has an interesting report today, titled “TV still the favored medium for political ad spending.” The bottom line: despite the web’s revolutionizing of political fundraising, “when it comes to spending those dollars, media strategists are voting old school.” Old school meaning TV.

Analysts who track political spending predict that TV stations nationwide will rake in two-thirds of the campaign dollars this year — about $2 billion. Commercial radio, another old-media staple, is expected to collect $250 million. At least $650 million will be spent on direct mail campaigns, those glossy fliers now filling mailboxes.

Internet sites should fetch about $50 million, less than 2% of the total.

The reasons:

Advertising veterans say the stakes are too high to experiment with a medium that, despite its ability to monitor the browsing habits of consumers, might not be effective.

“Television delivers a mass audience in a short amount of time and you don’t have that same assurance with the Internet,” said Wayne Johnson, president of Wayne Johnson Agency in Sacramento, which advises Republican candidates. “We have been waiting for that to change, but there are legitimate reasons why people are sticking with TV ads.”


…TV commercials sway voters. Politicians are able to blanket their message across a broad geographic region. Internet sites draw niche audiences from all over the planet, not a particular congressional district. And these days it is impossible to escape the barrage of ads on television.

Internet ads, Johnson said, are easy to ignore: “All you have to do is click.”

The happy result for media folk?

Los Angeles TV stations are awash in cash. According to Wells Fargo Securities, L.A. stations had collected more political ad money this year than those in any other market — more than $105million — by the third week of September and could take in as much as $150million by the time the votes are counted.

It’s interesting, if evergreen, election reporting. However, one element that’s missing—and that should be pretty crucial in a piece comparing TV and web ad spending—is the cost of the web ads candidates are buying. Two billion dollars is an impressive sum for TV ad spending, and certainly dwarfs the $50 million James reports was raked in by websites. But that gives us no real indication of the comparative volume of ads, as TV ads also dwarf web ads in cost. What does a dollar buy on TV versus the web? Without knowing that it’s a little difficult to make the more blanket statements that open the piece. Two percent of the total spend could be (much) more than two percent of the total ads.

James does address the price of TV spots:

“The cost of the media is significantly higher than it was two years ago,” said Johnson, who is working on several ballot initiatives. “Someone who would have spent $2.5 million for a statewide campaign back then would now have to spend $4million. Now, instead of buying a $2,000 spot, the price is $5,000 and three weeks ago it would have cost $3,000.”

I have little doubt the basic hypothesis here is correct. TV ads are more effective, and there is likely some shift back towards them this cycle. But the crucial bit of reporting to fully back it is this: what does that $5000 buy online? And it’s not here.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.