2012 General Election Ad Campaign in Colorado and Virginia

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION feature made possible thanks to assistance from the Center for Media and Public Affairs (VA) and Ms. Janice Bates (CO).

These pages aim to give a sense of what TV ads the campaigns, super PACs and others were running in a couple of battleground states during the latter part of the 2012 general election campaign. 

They are based on reviews of the "News4 at 5 pm" and "News4 at 6 pm" local newscasts on WRC Channel 4, the NBC affiliate in Washington, DC, comprising a total block of time of up to two hours each day over the five weeks leading up to Nov. 6, and of the hour-long "News at 9" local newscasts on FOX 31 in Denver, CO over the eight weeks leading up to Nov. 6.

Viewers in the two markets saw a lot of ads from the presidential race.  The Wesleyan Media Project (1, 2) reported that in the period from Oct. 1-29, 2012 the Denver market was the top market in the country by volume of presidential ads and Washington, DC was in the top ten.  As a measure of how intense the ad campaign became, consider that on Oct. 31 every ad aired in the FOX 31's hour-long "News at 9" broadcast was a political ad, and on Nov. 1 every ad in the two-hour "News4 at 5 pm" and "News4 at 6 pm" block was a political ad.  Although the typical viewer may not have been happy, It was the "full monty" for campaign ad aficionados.

In addition to presidential ads, viewers in both Northern Virginia and Denver saw plenty of political advertising from other campaigns as well.  In Virginia the high-profile U.S. Senate race between Tim Kaine and George Allen played out in markets across the state.  Virginia TV viewers in the Washington, DC market receive a double dose of political ads as DC stations also reach Maryland.  WRC viewers thus saw ads from competitive Maryland campaigns, most notably for and against Question 7 (gambling), that would not have been seen in other Virginia markets.  In Denver, viewers saw ads from three U.S. House races--the 6th (Coffman-Miklosi), 7th (Perlmutter-Coors) and 3rd (Tipton-Pace) congressional districts and a few for Amendment 64.

News programming is prime territory for political advertisers, for these viewers have at least some interest in current affairs.  However it must be noted that different newscasts have different audiences.  Generalizing, a 5 p.m. broadcast would have more retired people and stay-at-home moms among its viewers, while the 6 p.m. and later broadcasts would draw people who have come home from work.  Additionally, individual viewers naturally have preferences among the various stations offering local news in a given market.  Data from firms such as Scarborough Research allow the campaigns and their media buyers to drill down and target blue collar workers or single women or higher income viewers or other demographics as desired.

This survey is not intended to be a comprehensive review of all campaign and political ads run these states or even in these markets during the periods examined.  Looking at invoices (examples 1, 2 [PDFs], FCC), one sees that the campaigns and interest groups spread their advertising throughout the day and week from the early morning newscasts through programs such as "Regis & Kelly" and "Judge Judy" to the late evening newscast.  Thus reviewing larger blocks of time and/or other program segments on these stations or reviewing other stations or cable TV would have found a different mix of political ads. 

The objective here is to give a sense of the political ad ecosystem, showing for example what groups were running ads in the market and what ads were running on a particular day.  Questions to consider are: What proportion of the advertising is political, and does that increase as Election Day approaches?  What is the mix of ads from the presidential as opposed to the other political campaigns?  What is the balance between ads from the campaigns and ads from outside groups?

Details, Methodology and Limitations
The newscasts were recorded daily by helpful volunteers.  In both instances, a few days were missing and there were also some partial samples where the beginning or end of the broadcast was missing.

The structure of the local newscasts examined was fairly similar.  Each hour-long newscast typically had six ad breaks which went for two to three minutes.  In addition to the 30-second spots, there were 15-second spots (sometimes two 15-second spots from the same advertiser were run in an ad break, one at the beginning and one at the end) and one-minute spots.  A greater variety of ad lengths was seen on WRC Channel 4 (where 10-second spots and even 5-second spots as well as a two-minute spot and a 90-second spot were noted) than on FOX 31.

Along with the full-fledged ads run during the broadcasts, both stations ran various and sundry sponsored station promos, highlighting other station programming or station involvement in public service activities.  These were not considered in the analysis. 

In analyzing the relative numbers of different types of ads that aired, two different measures are possible: number of ads and ad time.  These produce slightly different results.  The difference arises because the regular commercials include typically include a number of shorter ads (most commonly 15-second ads) while the political ads often include some longer ads (most commonly one-minute ads).

Partial samples, where, for example, the day's recording starts late or cuts off before the end of the newscast require careful attention.  If, for example one wanted to consider the balance of Obama and Romney ads in the broadcast from a particular day, using a partial sample could well lead to erroneous conclusions.  However, if one is looking at broader questions such as the percentage of ads that are political as opposed to nonpolitical or ads that are presidential ads as opposed to other political ads, it seems reasonable to include partial samples   Going further, one must also decide what to do if there is partial ad break; in that case including the ads would seem to be less satisfactory. 

Another tricky area is the evening newscasts on weekends.  These are atypical, often abbreviated or even eliminated due to sports programming.  In this survey, the weekend samples from FOX 31 were more robust and are included, whereas those for WRC are not.

Coincidentally, in each sample, ads from a total of 26 different groups were seen.  While the presidential campaigns and groups with big budgets such as American Crossroads and Priorities USA Action advertised throughout, other groups "chose their spots."  For example, the pro-Romney group Americans for Job Security aired "Running" in both states in late Sept.-early Oct. but no further ads from them were seen in the sample.  Keeping in mind that this survey looks at a just a sliver of programming, a couple of RNC independent expenditure ads were noted: "Golden" (VA, late Sept.) "It's OK" (CO, late Oct.).  In many campaigns there often seem to be a few groups that go up fairly late, and one sees that in both samples.

One of the clearest differences seen in the WRC Channel 4 and FOX 31 samples was the notable increase in the proportion of presidential ads in the last week on the Denver station, while on the DC station the proportion remained fairly constant throughout.  In the FOX 31 sample one saw a number of pro-Romney groups weighing in late (American Future Fund, Crossroads GPS and the RNC independent expenditure).  The fact that the DC market hits both Northern Virginia and Maryland may have affected matters as well; the competitive VA Senate and MD Question 7 races could have created such demand that there wasn't room for more presidential ads.  Depending on area races, viewers in other Virginia markets such as Newport News/Norfolk/Portsmouth or Roanoke/Lynchburg may have seen an increase in the proportion of presidential ads in that last week similar to that seen on FOX 31.

While the economy was a dominant ad theme, the battle for the women's vote was an evident if secondary thread in the ads on both these local newscasts.  The Obama campaign ran ads on Romney's views on abortion and Planned Parenthood starting in the summer and continuing sporadically throughout.  "Dangerous" (Sept. 11) and "Decision" (Oct. 12) and a Planned Parenthood Votes ad (Oct. 11) focused on women's health and Planned Parenthood.  Additionally moms made quite a few appearances in ads.  "Pay the Bills" (Sept. 18 through to the start of the study period) featured a mom, Christie, on Romney's tax cut proposals.  In the Romney campaign's "Sarah" (Oct. 18), Sarah Minto, a suburban mom in her kitchen, addressed abortion and contraception, stating, "This issue's important to me, but I'm more concerned about the debt our children will be left with."  This Romney ad continued to run into early November.  The Obama campaign responded with "Seen" (Oct. 18).  American Crossroads also ran a couple of distinctive ads featuring a mom or mom actor ("Sack It" from Oct. 16 and "Debate" from Oct. 31).  In Colorado, the pro-Romney American Future Fund weighed in fairly late (Oct. 27) with "Real Solutions," featuring a series of women facing the camera.  Advertising targeting the women's vote may well have been more intense on cable and in some other programming.

Finally, one wonders about the effectiveness of political advertising in the final week(s) before Election Day.  People are weary of the campaign (+) and the ad clutter increases to saturation levels.  Bombarded by campaign ad after campaign ad, viewers may well tune out these messages even more than usual.  This is a possible explanation of why Americans for Job Security and RNC independent expenditure ads were seen in late September/early October but not  in the closing weeks.  (Standing out from the clutter poses a challenge to admakers.  In Massachusetts, for example, U.S. House candidate Richard Tisei ran a 30-second spot toward the close of the campaign showing Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester.  “Because you deserve a break from all the campaign ads,” text of the ad stated.  Apart from Tisei's disclaimer, the audio consisted of the sounds of surf and seagulls).


Presidential Campaign Ads Are Surrounded by Ads From Other Races         [these images not clickable]
Ads from WRC Channel 4: Kaine, Crossroads GPS, Yes on 7, Allen; Sobhani, U.S. C. of C., No on 7; Yes on 7, Majority PAC, No on 7, Crossroads GPS

The Iowa Ad Campaign (2012 IA caucuses)
The Ad Campaign in Northern Virginia - Oct. 23, 2008
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NH Crush: The Ad Campaigns in New Hampshire (2004 NH primary)