Beware of Ad Campaigns With More Bark Than Bite

by Nathan L. Gonzales February 4, 2011 · 9:44 AM EST

If a campaign ad airs and no one hears it, does it exist? Partisan strategists are determined to find out.

As part of a new “Drive to 25” campaign, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee unveiled an “advertising and grassroots campaign” to hold Republican incumbents “accountable for choosing a partisan plan that will cost jobs,” according to an e-mail to supporters Tuesday.

But Republicans tracking the ad buy have a very different view. They calculate the DCCC spent about $10,000 on radio ads against 19 GOP incumbents in 17 media markets — an average of $500 worth of radio ads spread across five days against each Member.

The DCCC effort has drawn Crossroads GPS to the fight, and the Republican 501(c)(4) is responding with $90,000 worth of radio ads in the same 19 districts, considerably more than the initial Democratic buy.

The Democratic ad campaign is just the latest example of a strategy that both Republican and Democratic campaign committees have employed in recent years. The strategy is to spend as little as possible in order to garner free media coverage and create the impression that a campaign-changing event is taking place.

“These are essentially paid press releases with a psychological component,” one former Republican committee official said. “While not intended to inform or persuade a lot of voters from a paid media perspective, they have great psychological impact.”

GOP strategists are convinced that early targeting last cycle influenced a handful of Democrats’ decisions to retire instead of endure a hard-fought re-election race.

Most recently, Democrats are using the tactic to put some freshman Republicans on notice that they could face difficult races next year. But it won’t be because of the size of the initial ad buy against them.

For example, the DCCC bought about $500 of radio ads this week in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., to target freshman Rep. Lou Barletta (R), according to GOP numbers given to Roll Call.

“What was probably done here is that this advertiser bought maybe one spot per day on the local news talk station,” a media buyer told Roll Call. “Charitably, I’d say that less than 3 percent of Wilkes-Barre adults heard this ad more than once.”

That doesn’t take into account that the media market doesn’t even cover the entire 11th district and that an even smaller percentage of adults are registered and likely to vote.

Without the subsequent media coverage, the vast majority of voters in the district would have no idea that Democrats were doing anything at all.

Democrats took their air assault to Detroit with $300 in ads against Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, to Charlottesville, Va., with $114 in ads against Rep. Robert Hurt, and to Syracuse, N.Y., with $276 in ads against Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, according to GOP numbers.

According to one media buyer, the technical term for this type of campaign is a “show-me buy.” Reporters want evidence that the ad is running so the campaign committee spends a tiny bit of money so it can honestly say the ad is up on the airwaves.

Sticking with their normal practice, Democratic strategists declined to release the specifics of their own buy but insisted the radio ads are just part of a larger plan that included web ads, phone calls and e-mails into the districts.

With $806,000 on hand at the end of the year and $19 million of debt, it’s not surprising that the DCCC was trying to make a splash without spending a lot of cash. It’s unclear whether the Democrats’ latest effort will pay off, but as a communication strategy, it succeeded in garnering national and local media attention and inspired some Republican Members to respond.

“While members of the U.S. House are back in their districts this week, Democrats are launching a campaign to put 19 Republicans on the ropes about creating jobs,” read the lede of a USA Today story Monday. The DCCC promptly blasted out the story in an e-mail in an effort to create momentum far beyond what the buy itself could generate.