Do television ads for political campaigns even work anymore?

The evil political "genius" Karl Rove spent oodles of cash this season trying to elect Republican candidates - or more accurately, trying to defeat Democrats. Most of the ads run by his two SuperPacs (American Crossroads and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies) weren't in support of Republican candidates, but were nasty, negative, half-true attacks on their opponents.

Dr. Evil: Karl Rove
Karl Rove plotting his next campaign

And when I say oodles of cash, I mean it. The total spending by outside third party groups this season was somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 billion. That's right, one beeeeeellllion dollars, with a B, although I doubt the final tally is complete. And Rove was the biggest of the biggest outside spenders (or offenders), raising and spending a reported $300 million, almost all of it on those ubiquitous television campaign ads.

And what did he get for this unprecedented spending spree?

Not much. Not much at all.

In fact, his two political outfits spent $127 million on more than 82,000 TV ads in support of Republican presidential candidate - and loser - Mitt Romney. Down the ballot, 10 of the 12 Senate candidates and four of the nine House candidates that the Rove groups backed all lost their bids.

The return on investment for American Crossroads donors was just 1 percent, according to an analysis by the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based group that advocates for open government. For donors to his other PAC, Crossroads GPS (who because of our screwed up campaign disclosure laws are anonymous), the success rate was a little better, 13 percent. (You see, in this country spending zillions of dollars on nasty, negative, misleading political TV ads paid for by anonymous fat-cat donors is perfectly legal, but an anonymous $90 website with completely factual information will get you in big trouble. But I digress). 

Rove's ROI was much lower even than the return on investment by the two parties on their targeted races. As New York Senator Charles Schumer said, “If Crossroads were a business, and Rove was the CEO, he’d be fired."

So what does this all mean as far as campaign spending and television advertising goes?

Hard to say until we see more data. But here are a few of my, ahem, expert observations.

1. I've always said that money is almost never the deciding factor in a political campaign. While you have to have a certain threshold of contributions to make your campaign legitimate (are you listening Cynthia Dill?), the landscape is littered with big spending campaigns, candidates and causes that ultimately lost to opponents who spent far less. In other words, you need a certain amount of cash to be on the playing field, but you can still win even if you're vastly outspent (just look at nearly every casino campaign in Maine.)

2. Often it's not how much you spend but how you spend it. You have to know who your voters are and what they watch on TV so your message is targeted to the voters who can actually be persuaded. That takes some skill, and good data. And it's why in campaigns I've been involved in I'm as interested in getting someone who knows how to actually make the ad buys at the stations as I am in the people who produce the ads. They're just as important. I have a hunch that Rove spent a lot of his money willy-nilly, against candidates he just didn't like, for whatever reason, not because he thought he could actually defeat them. Just look at what he did here in Maine. When Angus King announced he was running for the US Senate, the polls had him in the low to mid-50% range. After nearly $1 million in spending on attack ads by Rove and other outside groups, King finished the race about where he started, with 53% of the vote. It was simply a race he was never going to lose. Why the evil genius didn't see that is anyone's guess. (Of course it should be mentioned that King also benefited greatly from spending by outside groups including Americans Elect and others.)

3. All this being said, I do believe that television as an advertising medium, particularly for political campaign ads, is rapidly losing its effectiveness. It has to do with the difference between outbound marketing and emerging inbound marketing techniques (discussed elsewhere on Savvy's website). People just don't watch TV like they used to. I'm not a typical viewer, I don't watch a great deal of TV. But when I do, it's almost always programs that I've pre-recorded on my TIVO. And when an ad comes on (unless it's a Victoria Secrets commercial) I push the button on the remote and zip right past it, particularly if it's one of those gloomy, cookie-cutter negative political ads that are pretty easy to spot. And ignore.

That's one of the reasons why $1 million in negative TV ads bounced off King like bullets off Superman. If Rove was really the evil genius he thinks he is, his ads would have carried a message that had been shown in focus groups to actually move the needle and turn some votes against King, even if King and his allies pushed back, which they did. But in this case, Rove seemed to be making it up as he went along, following one outlandish ad with another even more outlandish ad. He had the wrong message and, by the looks of it, the wrong medium.

Dumb. Just plain dumb. If I was one of those fat cats who had handed millions to Rove just so he could play fun and games, I'd be asking for my money back. 

Tags: Maine politics, advertising, inbound marketing