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Political ads on TV early and often

By Rick Pearson
Tribune political reporter

July 31, 2003

If Chicago-area TV viewers have tuned out on politics, a new study may show why: Nearly 20,000 ads touting candidates' resumes and attacking their opponents' qualifications were aired on the city's TV broadcast outlets last year.

For a TV junkie, that's more than 158 hours of political advertising, or nearly a week's worth of viewing campaign commercials non-stop, based on the traditional half-minute ads run by candidates.

It adds up to big business for Chicago TV stations as candidates purchased nearly $44 million of air time.

The study was conducted by the Alliance for Better Campaigns, a national organization seeking to level the playing field among candidates by curbing the need for politicians to raise enormous amounts of money to pay for TV advertising. The group is pushing efforts for free or more affordable airtime for candidates.

The study confirms the escalation of a battle of the airwaves in which candidates are forced to try to raise millions of dollars or, in the case of wealthy contenders, to dig deep into their wallets to pay for commercials.

With the 2004 campaign just around the corner, there is little chance the TV bombardment will abate soon. In fact, candidates are using commercials earlier, extending what has already become a lengthy and grueling campaign season.

Last month, multimillionaire Democrat Blair Hull launched a series of TV commercials outside the Chicago area in his bid to spend upward of $40 million to win the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Peter Fitzgerald.

Republican James D. Oberweis, who runs the family's namesake boutique dairy, is featured in the business' first TV commercials ever, which began earlier this month. Oberweis acknowledged he hoped to gain name recognition for his U.S. Senate candidacy from the dairy ads. Political opponents say the commercials skirt federal campaign finance law.

Hull and Oberweis are among at least five millionaires running for the Senate seat.

The bitter 2002 election campaign featured a confluence of Senate and congressional races, contests for governor and other statewide offices and the election of a legislature to new districts.

Statistics compiled by the Alliance for Better Campaigns show 19,036 ads were aired in 2002 by candidates for federal, state and local office on Chicago's TV broadcast stations. Not included were innumerable ads on local cable TV outlets.

WLS-Ch. 7 ranked 6th nationally in the study, behind stations in New York and Los Angeles, by selling almost $15.6 million worth of airtime to candidates who ran 4,148 ads last year. WMAQ-Ch. 5 ranked 9th and took in $10.8 million from politicians who ran 4,313 ads.

Overall, more than $1 billion was spent by candidates nationally on broadcast TV advertising last year.

Though the study did not tally spending by individual candidates, campaign finance records have shown Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich was by far the state's biggest TV spender last year, using a war chest that far exceeded that of his rival, former Republican Atty. Gen. Jim Ryan.

The group's study contends TV stations across the country jacked up their ad rates as the election neared, despite federal law that requires stations to sell politicians their "lowest unit charge" for commercials.

Much of the added cost to candidates probably was due to the traditional practice of purchasing more expensive "non-pre-emptible" air time closer to Election Day, guaranteeing that their commercials could not be bumped by a better-paying advertiser.

The organization's report coincided with the introduction of legislation in Congress that would require stations to charge politicians for "non-pre-emptible" commercials at rates equivalent to those paid by high-volume advertisers.

In addition, the legislation, co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), would mandate that stations air at least two hours a week of candidate- or issue-related programming before an election and allow candidates who raise funds in small amounts to earn broadcast "vouchers" to pay for some political advertising.

As TV wars among candidates intensify, experts are divided on the effectiveness of TV as a campaign medium to win votes. That's especially true during the final weeks before an election, when candidates for a variety of offices are running ads and individual messages may be lost in the clutter.

Roderick P. Hart, director of the Strauss Institute for Civic Participation and a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, said not enough studies have been done to conclusively determine whether TV advertising gets votes for candidates.

"I think part of the folklore of American politics is the power of television commercials, and [their effectiveness] is one of the least-established facts," he said.

Kenneth Goldstein, an associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a longtime researcher and analyst of canmpaign advertising, said political commercials can make a difference, particularly in close contests among candidates with roughly the same resources.

"Ads matter at the margin, and we're living at a time where the margin really matters," said Goldstein, director of the Wisconsin Advertising Project at the university, which tracks and quantifies data about political ads aired in the nation's top 100 TV markets.

Goldstein said the advertising market for politicians running federal campaigns in 2004 is expected to increase, due to what he calls this "competitive time in this country."

"The Senate is nearly evenly divided," Goldstein said. "The House is close. We've had the closest presidential election in modern history. . . . No one is going to let themselves be out-advertised."

Former state Rep. Jim Durkin of Westchester is a rare exception. Durkin won a three-way primary for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination against two millionaire opponents without airing a single ad. Still, Durkin lost the general election to Durbin, the incumbent Democrat. Durkin again lacked the money to run advertising, while Durbin went on the air with commercials.

"If we had the resources, we would have run ads. It is an essential tool to put a name to a face," said Durkin, now a lawyer in private practice.

"But it's extremely difficult for a candidate who is not a multimillionaire to run on TV in Chicago."

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Number of political ads aired in Chicago in 2002


Total cost of those ads

158 hours

Approximate duration of those ads

Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune

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