Out, out... damned TV spots

Losers: Surveys and political pros say 30-second TV ads are wasteful as well as corrupting

July 19, 1999

REMEMBER those election season ads that pollute your television screen and annoy, offend and bore you? It turns out they've become a monumental waste of money.

They're not very creative. They don't work. And they probably alienate large blocks of voters. They could be dropped, but don't count on it.

Money has lost power in media politics for several reasons. With so many channels and so much clutter, the cost of getting viewers' attention has gone way up. To have any effect, the message must be repeated ad nauseam.

Pollster Andrew Kohut pointed this out in his study of issue ads run by President Clinton in 1995 -- ads credited with boosting his showing in the 1996 election. Mr. Kohut compared the president's performance in states where big money was spent with those where the Clinton budget was small. He found little difference.

California businessman Al Checchi is another strong example. He ladled $40 million of his own money into a U.S. Senate race and went home with a paltry 13 percent of the Democratic primary vote. Money and TV, alone, are obviously not the answer.

Business leaders -- whose companies are funding an ever-larger percentage of many campaigns -- feel they can't afford to snub politicians at fund-raising time, lest they be penalized by those who are elected. So they keep the money coming.

That's true even when the cost of a ticket to a recent cocktail party at Camden Yards was $4,000 and the recipient was Gov. Parris N. Glendening -- who cannot succeed himself, has no announced plan to run for anything else and has no need for a television ad campaign.

So candidates and consultants are likely to stay with the old ways. We're likely to see a glut of futile images in the coming presidential election year. Since more money is required to make an impact, the race for campaign cash could intensify -- and voters could be even more turned off than they are now.

We could always rebel, of course, and vote against every big-money candidate. Television will show us who they are.

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