Capital Goods: October 2012

New swing state is getting ads nauseam

By midsummer, the Charlotte television market had been subjected to about as many political ads as any place in the nation. The Washington Post reported that presidential campaigns, political action committees and special-interest groups had spent $14.5 million on TV ads aimed at its viewers by late August. That’s what comes from being a major media market in a newly christened swing state. By the end of July, an estimated $31 million had been spent across North Carolina on ads for the presidential race.

That figure doesn’t include spending on congressional, state and local primaries or ads that show Republican gubernatorial hopeful Pat McCrory strolling across an empty warehouse into living rooms while invoking a new day of bipartisan kumbaya and economic triumph. The gusher of cash is good for television stations and political consultants, but it might not have the effect the candidates intended, especially when the ads and their creators have less regard for that thing called truth with each passing election cycle.

Two years ago, noting how false and ridiculous some political ads had become, I wrote that it was increasingly difficult to distinguish between them and bad reality TV. Then, as now, I kept hoping one would show an English nanny beating some manners into a candidate. That fantasy will have to wait. Two years ago, candidates in state legislative races ran ads implying that their opponents were prostitutes and drug dealers. This year, lying about this position or that policy seems to be the norm.

National pundits made a lot of noise when Mitt Romney’s campaign ran an ad built around a whopper about the Obama administration lessening welfare-to-work requirements. Political consultants seem to believe that an absence of truth carries no consequences. Maybe they’re right. Psychologists have long claimed that, even as voters complain about being turned off by negative ads, the messages still affect them in ways they might not understand. In a recent USA Today/Gallup poll, one in 12 voters in swing states said ads affect their preferences in races. That’s enough to determine elections and, in the minds of political gurus, justify the expense.

The bulk of the ads in North Carolina and other swing states fall into what ad-monitoring groups characterize as “negative” or “attack” ads. But here’s an interesting finding: Focus groups have told consultants that the most effective ads for Romney have been those featuring real people talking in measured terms about respecting Barack Obama but not believing he can get the job done. That’s not your typical slash-and-burn attack ad, and it’s difficult to believe the trend of demonstrably false advertising won’t eventually take a toll on their effectiveness. Wouldn’t an insurance company running ads claiming to have the lowest rates after being exposed as having the highest shake consumer confidence?

For candidates in down-ballot races, a more important question might be whether they can even be heard this election cycle. In just the Raleigh television market, the presidential campaigns and the shadow groups trying to influence the outcome spent better than $2.5 million each month in June and July. So what will they be spending this month, there and elsewhere, in the state?

Then there’s the race for governor. In 2008, Democrat Beverly Perdue spent more than $9 million on her general-election campaign, while McCrory dropped about $4 million after winning the GOP primary. The spending ratio likely will be reversed this year, with McCrory having a big fund-raising advantage over Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton. The overall numbers, and the deluge of ads, might not be so different. As Labor Day neared, talk in Raleigh was that outside Democratic groups might come to Dalton’s aid to narrow the gap.

How candidates in Council of State, legislative and local races will fare in trying to schedule airtime or be noticed among all the noise is yet to be seen, with the cacophony created by the presidential campaigns making it harder to be heard above the din. But viewers will be bombarded with an unprecedented number of ads building up and tearing down politicians of all stripes. The final result could well be a shellshocked electorate that is numb to it all by Election Day.

Scott Mooneyham is editor of The Insider, www.ncinsider.com. Email him at smooneyh@ncinsider.com.