Political Ad Wars Fought On New Battlegrounds

NPR's Ari Shapiro spent a week in one city in a battleground state, Colorado Springs, where campaign spending has tripled since 2008. He discovered how it's changing, and the campaign strategy behind targeting specific ads for specific markets in hopes of winning over undecided voters.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Those of you who live in swing states, we're sorry. We know you hate the political ads that saturate your television. But we want to know if you've noticed anything different in 2012, ads in places you haven't seen them before, different kinds of ads. Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. In Colorado Springs, spending on advertising tripled since 2008. NPR's Ari Shapiro traveled there recently. You may have heard his reports last week, and he joined us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And why Colorado Springs?

SHAPIRO: Well, it's part of Colorado, which is an important swing state this year. Colorado Springs, it's a strange place for this because Republicans outnumber Democrats 2-to-1. President Obama lost this county to John McCain by 19 points in 2008. Not a swing county, it's a place where everybody expects Mitt Romney to win. But he may or may not win the state of Colorado based on how large a margin he carries Colorado Springs by. It's much cheaper to advertise in a place like Colorado Springs than it is in a place like Denver. And so you have this flood of advertising there even by the Obama campaign, which knows it can't win Colorado Springs but hopes it may lose by a little smaller of a margin.

CONAN: And they've got money, and they got to spend it.

SHAPIRO: They've got money, and they've got to spend it. That's the thing, is that this year, you have the campaigns in the outside groups with more money than they've ever had before, squeezing that money into a smaller pool of swing states at play. And so you see just an explosion in advertising prices and an explosion in advertising in places you didn't use to see it, like on cable TV.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And you talked to, on your visit, to Missy Evanson as the...

SHAPIRO: Evenson, yes.

CONAN: Evenson. Oh, excuse me. I'm just - sorry the - sales director at the ABC affiliate in Denver.

MISSY EVENSON: The thing about a television station, it's finite supply. This is classic economics, right? Supply and demand theory. I've got so many parking spots, it's a race to see who gets them.

CONAN: So this means that if you want an ad on the local news or an ad on cable TV or anywhere, in fact, there is not an infinite number of spaces available.

SHAPIRO: Right. I talked to local advertisers who were basically crowded out, and they were going to print or Internet or billboard advertising instead, and then I...

CONAN: Radio, perhaps?

SHAPIRO: Radio, perhaps. There was one advertiser who told me a story about 2008 when a TV spot that typically would've gone for $300 to $500, the station was asking $1,500 for the spot. And at the last minute, a national campaign swooped in and paid $7,000. That was 2008. This year, as you said, in Colorado Springs, at least spending has tripled.

CONAN: And, of course, one interesting part of your series is that this is a bonanza for the local broadcasters.

SHAPIRO: It is, but what's strange that the local broadcasters, as much as they try to plan in two-year intervals - so in the off years, they're not going to buy a new satellite truck - they'll do it during election year - the map is unpredictable. So Pennsylvania, in 2008, was one of the biggest markets in the country for ad spending. This year, nothing. Wisconsin was seeing no advertising until Mitt Romney added Paul Ryan to the ticket, congressman from Wisconsin. Suddenly, millions of dollars are flowing into Wisconsin. North Carolina was never a swing state until Barack Obama won it in 2008. Now those markets are awash in millions of dollars in ads.

CONAN: And it's interesting. You can also follow a campaign's expectations by the fact if - well, the Romney campaign pulled out of Michigan. They stopped spending money a couple of weeks ago.

SHAPIRO: So we collaborated with the ad tracking from Kantar Media to monitor these ads. And the head of that group told me, you know, in poker, they refer to a tell, how you can tell, you know, what the player actually has in his hand. Well, ad spending is a tell. A campaign may say that a certain state is in play, but if they're not spending the money on advertising in that state, you know they don't actually believe it.

CONAN: And one of the interesting things is how targeted this advertising is. As you reported, more by the Obama campaign than by the Romney campaign.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. That's one difference between the Romney and the Obama camps, is that while, sure, both campaigns have Spanish language ads, and ads, you know, toward women, for the most part, the Romney message is a much more universal, I will succeed the economy, I will create jobs. Whereas the Obama campaign has, you know, 20 ads running at once across the country, which is an unprecedented number to be running at once. And they target senior citizens, veterans, students, Hispanics, women, just niche-targeting with a different message for each group.

CONAN: And that reflects, in a sense, the kind of voters both campaigns are trying to reach.

SHAPIRO: That's right. So in my exhaustive research while I was in Colorado, I watched the reality TV program, "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo"...

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: ...on the cable network.

CONAN: Do you get combat pay for that?

SHAPIRO: I ought to. I haven't filed for it. But there was the advertising from the Obama campaign that was specifically directed to women. And the thing about advertising in cable is it's much smaller markets, but it's much more targeted market. So if you want to reach young men, you advertise on Spike TV. If you want to reach women, you advertise on Lifetime. If you want to reach Hispanics, you advertise on Univision.

CONAN: And then the question becomes, what effect any of these have?

SHAPIRO: Well, most people are totally turned off by the ads, but most people have made up their minds who they're going to vote for. You know, the remaining undecided voters are something like five percent of the electorate. And so if you alienate 95 percent of the electorate, it's not a problem as long as the 95 percent you're alienating has already made up their minds. And, in fact, I spoke to voters, at least one woman who was undecided, who is a small business owner, and the woman, she had voted for Barack Obama in 2008. And she told me she was really torn.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

TED DEVINE: Those groups are very different in terms of who they are. And in order to reach them, you have to go to different places, particularly when you're talking about television advertising. They're very discreet audiences.

CONAN: I'm sorry. We played the wrong cut tape of there. I apologize for that. But that was Ted Devine.

SHAPIRO: Right, right. Ted Devine, a Democratic advertising consultant, talking about how you target the niche markets. But this woman in Colorado Springs who I spoke with said as a business owner, she was very concerned about the Democrats' policies of taxing and regulation. And as a woman, she was very concerned about the Republicans' policies regarding women's health. And those are both the messages that the Republican and Democratic Party have been targeting at her as a small business owner, who's also a woman, and they're clearly reaching her. And she wasn't able to make up her mind who she'd vote for this time.

CONAN: And those are the campaigns, then there are the wild cards, the superPACs, that are running ads.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. And, you know, the narrative was because of uncensored spending this year, the superPACs would rule the day. In my experience, that turned out not necessarily be the case. The Obama campaign is vastly outspending the Romney campaign in many of these markets. And the conservative outside groups are helping to close that gap, somewhat, so that liberal and conservative spending more or less equals out. For various reasons, the outside groups have to pay higher rates to advertise in the same markets that the campaigns are advertising in. So you've got, you know, all of these massive players in the market. As best I can tell, it is just sort of an arms race where everyone amps up more and more and more.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. And those of you who live in swing states, we know you hate the ads. What are you noticing that's different? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Let's start with Mike, and Mike's on the line from Little Rock. I'm not aware that Arkansas is considered a swing state, Mike.

MIKE: No, but I took the liberty of calling anyways because it is an interesting state in the fact that it had a strange history of going back and forth between dominant parties. I'm not originally from Little Rock, but I'm seeing something I've never seen before this early in the election. People are actually chalking the window of their cars, you know, like you would for a homecoming in high school. They're actually already putting up, you know, Romney 2012, Obama 2012 on the windows of their cars, kind of grassroots movement. And it's free for the politician, too, so I don't see how it could get anymore contested in this election.

SHAPIRO: Well, right. So the advertising does not exists in a bubble. It's connected to the ground's games of, you know, thousands and thousands of volunteers fanning out across the country. The mailings, the fundraisings, it's all integrated as part of this massive campaign that is, you know, national in name, but in practice, really just playing out in eight or nine states.

CONAN: And...

MIKE: Right.

CONAN: And...

MIKE: And then also in other markets where I have seen, you know, a non-mercantilistic model of actually pursuing votes. My spam inbox in my Gmail has just been barraged with, you know, appeals for votes. Just fantastic because there's an unlimited number of emails you can send someone.

CONAN: All right. I take the spammers have figured that out.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Nigerian Princes have worked this out before, but, Mike, thanks very much for the call. Here's an email from Salen(ph): I only watch TV online every other - or two out of every three ads that air on Hulu are political ads. I went out of state, to Michigan, and noticed a difference in the number of presidential race ads on Hulu markedly less.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. I'm seeing ads in places I've never seen them before. I tell you, I was, you know, using Twitter in Colorado, tweeting about what I was finding, and I'm sure I used the words Obama and Romney. I'm now finding promoted ads in my Twitter feed about Obama and Romney in Colorado where those campaigns, or at least the outside groups, have paid for advertising there and on Hulu, and even in video games. You can be playing a racing game and a billboard will go by that says, vote for my candidate. So it's not just TV.

CONAN: Let's go next to Victoria, and Victoria is on the line with us from Cincinnati, which, most assuredly, Ohio is a swing state.

VICTORIA: Hello. Thank you for having me on the air.

CONAN: Go ahead.

VICTORIA: My comment, I guess, is just, I've noticed, especially in my area, there's a lot of morality with the political ads. And I'm really - honestly motivated me to get my friends to get out and vote. The one that I want to talk about the most was - we've been getting a lot of mailings. I got a documentary in the mail, and it says the real story about Obama and it talked - and it's called "My Real Father."

CONAN: No, "Dreams From Real Father," yes. This is a documentary that purports - alleges that Obama's father was not his father, but rather that he was the child of a Marxist poet, but absolutely no substance to this whatsoever. But any case, this is making the rounds. Go ahead, Victoria.

VICTORIA: It just - really, it's sad. I watched the beginning of it with my husband, and it's really got us out to go out and try to get our friends to get involved. And what I hear from a lot of the undecided, well, it's all just lies anyway. Everyone is just the same. And I've heard a lot of conversation. Like I know on 75, a common highway, there's a sign that says, Obama believes in gay rights, abortion. Do you? And it's incited a lot of conversation with my friends. And I think these types of ads push away from the issues and push people to make personal judgments.

SHAPIRO: That speaks of something else that we found in Colorado, according to the advertising data that Kantar Media CMAG collected for us. There were 1,500 ads broadcast in Colorado Springs in the span of a week. And out of those 1,500 ads, 50 were positive. That is to say 97 percent of the TV ads were negative. You know, people always say, this is the biggest year. This is the most negative year. But this year, it's so much worse than anyone have seen before. It's really eye-popping.

CONAN: Victoria, thanks for the call.

VICTORIA: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Ari Shapiro, NPR White House correspondent - he's with us here in Studio 3A - about political advertising. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And this from Julie: I live in Ohio. I'm amaze how targeted the radio ads are. The '80s pop stations have ads specifically for middle-age women, on health issues. Hip-hop stations have the youth got-to-vote ads. And African-American talk radio has its own ads. Sometimes, I don't even realize until the end, that they're all Obama ads.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, it's interesting. I mean, as we've mentioned, the Obama campaign is doing much more targeted advertising. And the reason, as one ad analyst explain to me, is that in this election, the economy is something of an albatross around President Obama's neck. And to overcome that, he has to cobble together this very different coalition, you know, women and Latinos and well-educated white voters and African-Americans and young people. Those constituent groups have different concerns, whereas the Romney campaign believes everybody needs a job, everybody is suffering in this Obama economy. That's the message we have to hammer home.

CONAN: Let's go to Alexandra. Alexandra with us from Miami.

ALEXANDRA: Hi there. Thank you so very much for taking my call.

CONAN: And you're welcome. And Florida also a swing state, most definitely.

ALEXANDRA: Absolutely. And I don't know how many of your listeners are my age group. I am 22 so, of course, I am constantly on Facebook, like anyone else. And I've noticed, like astonishingly, there are so many targeted advertisements on Facebook - not necessarily directly from the candidates, but from superPACs. And I guess - I don't know how they liked the guys, but I do actually, you know, quote/unquote, "like a lot of feminist pages, like women rights pages." And I've been noticing, again, Obama ads from superPACs in regards to women's rights and things like that.

SHAPIRO: Well, you know, it's the - I went to the Romney and Obama campaigns, and the Obama campaign was much more closed off, saying, we'll discuss our analytics in how we do these targeting after the election. You know, we'll do all the play-by-play, but we don't want to pull back the curtain right now. It will be interesting to see where they're getting their demographic data from, how they're using it, how extensively they're parsing it, and what exactly it is that leads them to target this ad towards this person on Facebook instead of on the radio, as opposed to this place instead of that place. Certainly, the fact that you have liked on Facebook, these various women and feminist groups, is, you know, an easy opening for them to target you as somebody who might be swayed by those kinds of arguments.

CONAN: Alexandra, thanks very much.

ALEXANDRA: Thank you so much.

CONAN: And this is another listener in Florida, Erin(ph): Here in Florida, the commercials are running back-to-back, she emailed us. Even my young kids can identify them. Ari, doesn't the president have a joke about that on his stump speech?

SHAPIRO: Yeah, it's a consistent joke. In his stump speech, he talks about his friends who have a four-year-old who pointed the picture of the president. And his friend said, who is that? And the four-year-old said, that's Barack Obama. And the friend said, and what does he do? And the four-year-old said, he approves this message.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: We are two days away from the first debate. Are you going out to Denver?

SHAPIRO: We're flying to Denver on Wednesday, yes.

CONAN: How anticipated is this? You mostly, obviously, been covering the White House and the Obama campaign.

SHAPIRO: Right, right. Well, I've - I mean, I've spent a lot of time with both. And the fact is, right now, Mitt Romney is behind in the polls, which means a tie is not good enough for him in his debate. So he has been working really, really hard to pull out a decisive win. Everyone acknowledges that he has to do that, which in some ways makes it more exciting. Because if this race were really neck in neck, then you might see two people who are really playing it safe. The fact that Mitt Romney has to overcome a serious and growing gap with President Obama in the polls, means we're going to be looking for some sort of - what ever the baseball metaphor is, I turn to you, Neal, that would cause him to win the game.

CONAN: A long ball perhaps.

SHAPIRO: A long ball, sure.

CONAN: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Let's see if we got one more caller in. This is Sharon. Sharon with us from Greensboro, North Carolina, as Ari mentioned, definitely a swing state.

SHARON: Hi, I'm Sharon. I recently - I'm 25. So I recently heard on my Pandora, a radio station on the Internet radio, a Romney ad. I think I was really surprised to hear Romney's rhetoric being thrown into my musical selection.

SHAPIRO: If I may ask, what was the Pandora station? What kind of music was Romney targeting?

SHARON: You know, I don't remember, but, you know, I think my stations are similar to many of those in my age group. So I'm sure that...

SHAPIRO: And was the message targeted to young people specifically?

SHARON: It wasn't, but it was - interestingly enough, it was very - it was a positive ad, sort of inspiring...

SHAPIRO: Also very unusual.

SHARON: Yeah, strange but, yeah.

Sharon, thanks very much. It's interesting information. Appreciate it.

Thanks.

CONAN: So ads on Pandora. And I assume that the verdict will not be delivered on the debate over spinmeisters and in the spin room, but on Twitter during broadcast.

SHAPIRO: For sure, yeah. I mean, this is one of the new things about this election cycle is that you have reporters twitting out speeches as the candidates are giving them and saying, oh, that was a really good line, or that line fall flat or that was a gaffe. And by the time the speech is over, there's already a verdict on it in social media.

CONAN: We'll be listening with interest. Ari Shapiro, thanks very much for your time.

SHAPIRO: A pleasure joining you.

CONAN: White House correspondent, Ari Shapiro, with us here in Studio 3A. You can find his reports on political ads in Colorado Springs in npr.org. Tomorrow, David Greene guest host, and we'll talk about how Russia is looking to recapture some lost ground along its borders. I'll be back on Wednesday with the Political Junkie from St. Louis, Missouri. We'll see you then. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News in Washington.

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