By Joe Sheller / Guest Column

Since 1952, television has been the 800-pound gorilla in presidential politics. For the 2016 election, NPR reported that more than $4.4 billion is likely to be poured into television ads – and Iowa will get more than its share.

The Des Moines Register reported that TV ad spending before the Feb. 2 Iowa Caucuses will total more than $22 million, while the Gazette noted that between June and mid-November of this year, close to $4 million was spent with stations serving the Corridor.

I hope you’re not too tired of political ads, because the flood is just starting. December spending will be double November’s – and political ad spending in January is off the charts. Pity the Corridor car dealership that wants to run a TV ad in the new year. There won’t be a lot of slots left.

And yet, despite the flood of money pouring into TV, I think we’re already seeing signs that the tight grip TV ads have on our body politic is loosening.

In 1964, President Johnson’s “Daisy Girl” commercial – which implied a vote for Barry Goldwater would be a vote for nuclear war – was so shocking that it was only aired once. To their credit, American voters in the early TV era could not stomach such a message.

We stomach messages that are far more extreme today – but that’s partly because TV political ads are becoming passé.

Think of past campaigns and their memorable ads, such as Willie Horton, the star of the anti-Dukakis ads in 1988. Who can forget, even if they want to, “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth?” In more recent years, we had Chuck Norris endorsing Mike Huckabee, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry wearing what appeared to be the jacket from Brokeback Mountain in a widely parodied anti-gay rights ad.

But quick, name the most memorable ad from the 2016 campaign. Was it hard? What came to my mind when I posed myself that question was the Bernie Sanders’ “rigged economy” spot. It’s engaging and interesting – and run by a campaign not leading in the polls. But, honestly, Bernie Sanders on the economy? If that’s as exciting as political ads get, they’re not very exciting.

In fact, the Donald Trump campaign, from the candidate whose gravity is distorting the entire GOP universe, has no TV ads. What is going on? I think the power of the political TV ad is muted by many factors:

  • Our changing media habits. In the 1980s, the grip that the three broadcast networks had on America was lessened by cable TV. Today, it’s the Internet that’s robbing the TV of our attention. The “Daisy Girl” ran when you could get all the TV you wanted, as long as it was on a local affiliate of CBS, NBC or ABC. The media landscape is more diverse today.
  • The flood of PAC money and messages. Following the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, PACs are much freer to raise and spend huge sums. Interestingly enough, most TV ads on the Republican side in the 2016 cycle have been PAC ads. That pattern has not been replicated on the Democratic side, but then again, the field and the race are different there. The plethora of PACs means that political ads today are more shrill, less focused by candidate message control, and probably easier for viewers to tune out.
  • The lack of a breakout ad. Carly Fiorina released a memorable ad after Donald Trump made a misogynistic comment about her face. In the ad, Fiorina noted that women are a majority of the electorate and said she earned every wrinkle on her face. While effective in context, that ad is little remembered now as the Donald has dropped so many verbal bombs, the impact of any rebuttal is lost in the boom of the next explosion. We don’t have one Daisy Ad this year – we have a continuing barrage that has created a babble in which no message has stood out.
  • Ad fatigue on the part of Iowans. Since the Iowa caucuses rose to prominence in 1976, we’ve seen a parade of candidates and campaigns courting Hawkeye caucus goers. 2016 is the 11th presidential campaign where Iowa has been a hotly contested battleground. I don’t know about you, but even as a journalism professor, I have trouble not tuning out whenever I see another TV political ad.

 

While total TV ad spending for 2016 will top $4 billion, Mother Jones magazine reported  another $1 billion will be spent on online ads, including videos, gifs and memes. One reason online advertising is catching fire is the trove of data that campaigns collect on the eyeballs seeing their ads.

In the world at large, marketing is turning away from expensive mass messages that reach everyone to more finely nuanced strategies. I think we’re seeing that same trend in our politics. And that’s another reason why 2016 hasn’t yet had its “Daisy Girl” moment.

Joe Sheller is associate professor of communication and journalism with Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids. He can be reached at jsheller@mtmercy.edu.

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