One of the most accepted implications of the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision in January—which opened the door to corporate and union campaign expenditures—is that there will be more groups trying to get on the airwaves in the run up to elections.
In the consulting world, this perhaps most significantly affects media buyers; any increase in third party ads will influence their strategies. The biggest and most obvious concern for these consultants is what to do if air space is bought up by outside groups who could, in theory, start making buys months before the election.
“From a media buying perspective, it makes it more difficult,” says Tim Kay of NCC Media. “In the general election, you have the Republican, the Democrat and maybe the independent. Now you have a variety of different groups on top of that. Those groups are going to take inventory away from the candidates.”
As with all speculating post Citizens United, it remains to be seen just how big an effect the decision will have. Wayne Johnson, head of The Wayne Johnson Agency, says he has seen a few groups start moving forward with airing ads, but the stream “has not been a floodgate.”
“A lot hasn’t come to fruition yet,” he adds, “because people are still feeling their way.”
If there is an onslaught of third parties trying to air ads later this year, the big question, according to Johnson and others, is how television stations will handle it. Candidates usually have access to a station’s lowest unit rate—or LUR—so they pay the lowest price that that station offers advertisers. Those low rates, however, are preemptable, meaning their ads can get bumped for other ads if another buyer pays more. Third party groups won’t get the LUR, they’ll get the premium rates that would preempt the lower priced ads.
“Depending on how much demand there is,” says Johnson, “it can be pretty expensive for independent expenditures and issue advocacy to go in and do television advertising.”
An increase in premium television buys could have a twofold impact. First, the price of television ads could go up; candidates will have to opt for higher ad rates in order to keep their spots from getting bumped by third party group ads. Candidates would also be at a disadvantage because wealthy third party groups could lock in their ad buys early, before a candidate has raised the money to cover his or her media plan. The main beneficiaries should be the stations, which will be able to fetch higher ad rates.
Second, candidates and campaigns looking for less expensive, high impact buys could shift more of their budgets online. Media buyers that focus on the Internet say the decision has already been a boon to their business. Online media can be more narrowly targeted and campaigns can receive real time results of who is seeing their ads, something television and radio doesn’t provide with as much detail. “We do a lot of issue advocacy, so we see a huge benefit,” says David Wolk of the Goodway Group. “In our world, we really have some leverage right now,” Wolk adds. “We have so much data and post-buy information.”
Smaller, narrower media buys are where Ken Strasma of Strategic Telemetry hopes the industry is going. Strasma, a Democratic microtargeter, says crowded airwaves will place a premium on collecting more information about targeted voters to figure out where, exactly, to buy media. “In general, my bias as a microtargeter is more data,” he says. “It puts a premium on being smart with your media buys.”
Third party groups, Strasma says, may go with traditional television and radio buys, acting like “gorillas buying the low hanging fruit.” “It could well be,” he adds, “that the persuadable voters are available much more inexpensively through nontraditional shows and channels.”Jeremy P. Jacobs is the staff writer at Campaigns & Elections.