Hey Washington! Where Are All The Issue Ads?

Even gun debate fails to generate a lot of messaging

Given the abundance of debate over major issues such as gun control and sequestration, it would be easy to assume Washington is pumping out issue and advocacy ads. Well, you know what they say when you assume.

Besides gun control and sequestration, there's also an end-of-the-month deadline to pass a budget to keep the government in business, the onset of Obamacare, immigration reform, and several environmental issues from the Keystone Pipeline to climate control.

So far, though, it’s been relatively quiet on the airwaves. During the first two months of the year, only about $22 million has been spent on TV ads, per some estimates.

Issue-based messaging "is a non-event," said Jack Poor, the vp of strategic planning for the TVB.

TV had high hopes for health care, Poor said. The issue is practically tailor-made for local stations because Obamacare requires states to set up health insurance exchanges. The deadline for the exchanges is this fall to give consumers choices by 2014, but many states have yet to make final decisions, let alone advertise their choices.

More surprising is that there's been so little advertising around the gun debate. Despite a controversial ad from the National Rifle Association in January that used President Obama's daughters to make a point about guards in schools,  spending has been a trickle. Mayors Against Illegal Guns has been most active in Chicago, and run some ads in Washington, D.C., but overall spending has been low, per Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group.

"Last year, MAIG ran a Super Bowl ad over network TV. This year, they ran it only in the Washington market," said CMAG vp Elizabeth Wilner.

Some issues, like fiscal issues, don't draw a lot of funding, said Bruce Haynes, a founding partner with Purple Strategies, an Alexandria, Va., public affairs firm.

But issues that often generate a lot of advertising, such as climate change and environmental matters—both leading President Obama's agenda as spelled out in his State of the Union address—are so far laying low.

Even Organizing for Action, the outside non-profit group borne of the Obama campaign, has yet to advertise, sticking to fund raising, grassroots organizing and social media.

Wilner chalked up some of the inactivity to the slow-to-act Congress and the beginning of a second term presidency. "Congress isn't really doing anything and that is never great for advocacy advertising," she said.

The lack of issue ads could also be the beginning of a trend by groups and associations, many squeezed by tighter budgets, to find more cost effective ways to get their messages out. "It's becoming more of a content proposition," Haynes said. "In the past it used to be do a 30: TV script. Now the question is how can we create an infographic and then socialize it through our owned and shared channels."

Of course for consumers, the political ad lull is probably a welcome respite after the most advertised election in history.

"People just spent a whole lot of money but the government didn't really change," Haynes said. "They've eaten the big meal, and now they'd like to take a nap."