Over 530,000 campaign ads have aired on TV thus far in the 2004 election. Yet those ads — which barely rise above the creativity of a 15-second talking head — have been seen by an ever-shrinking pool of would-be voters, as the number of swing states dwindles and the ad buys surge in the homestretch.

Two recent articles take a fascinating look at this barrage of advertising.
Citing a statistic that gives Campaign Desk the heebie-jeebies, the New York Times’ Francis X. Cline reports that in 2000, there were almost four times as many campaign ads as political stories on local news programs. (Even worse, some of the ads were more interesting than the news stories.)

Although there are 210 TV markets in the US, nearly 60 percent of the nation’s electorate has thus far been spared, writes Cline, who visited the University of Wisconsin’s Advertising Project, which tracks campaign ads. That would be the 60 percent who live in states already ceded to one candidate or another. And at this point, as the election clock winds down, the focus grows narrower; only in the three to six remaining battleground states (depending on who’s counting) are ads running at a saturation rate.

Focused though this torrent is, it’s still a torrent. And it’s a bonanza for local stations, writes Gail Shister, television columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer. In the Philadelphia market (which reaches large parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware), the Bush and Kerry campaigns will spend an estimated $25 million for advertising at the local ABC, NBC and CBS outlets. But that’s not all. Outside organizations, such as MoveOn.org, have also shelled out almost $20 million to those stations since March.

Says Shister: “And there is still a month to go. The closer to the election, the higher the ad rates.”

Philadelphia ranks second behind Cleveland among the top ten cities for ad spending by Kerry and Bush campaigns, according to Shister.

But do these ads really affect any votes? That would seem to be the $45 million-and-counting question. “No one can say for sure,” says the peripatetic political analyst Larry J. Sabato (who — willing to comment on just about anything — gets almost as much media ink and airtime as the candidates).

Why?

Because, Sabato says sagely, “the campaigns are afraid to find out.”

Meantime, if swing state voters overwhelmed with TV ads find themselves wishing that the candidates hogging the airwaves would just take a flying leap, it’s not too late for them to move to Oregon, where at least one candidate has. That would be Democratic hopeful U.S. Rep. David Wu who took a 20-story bungee jump off a bridge to make his point about the dangers of privatizing Social Security, saying just before he leaped: “I approved this message. And I do my own stunts.”

(If he loses, maybe Philadelphians can convince him to head east before 2008.)

Susan Q. Stranahan

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.