Issue Ads to Go Into Overdrive

Post-election advertising is now a bona fide category

So long, Mitt. Hello, “Got Debt?”

Spoofs of landmark ads are part of a new campaign from the Fix the Debt group, and they are the tip of a tsunami of legislative-issue messaging that’s expected to emerge in the coming weeks and months.

For those thinking that the end of the election meant the end of political ads, think again. In fact, issue advertising during nonelection years has been growing at double-digit rates. Spending on issue ads is forecast to hit $2 billion in 2013, topping the $1.63 billion spent in this election year and up 87 percent from the $1.07 billion spent in 2009, per Borrell Associates.

A barometer reading from media companies indicates that although there hasn’t been much issue spending since the elections, a groundswell is expected to materialize now that Congress is back in business.

Not only have issue ads become a bona fide ad category in the off election years, but also the category is evolving in two other ways, said Bruce Haynes, managing partner of Alexandria, Va.-based Purple Strategies, a public affairs and communications company. Political strategists are using more digital media than before and migrating video that was once reserved for TV across all video screens. Also, rather than just pressuring legislators in the greater Washington, D.C., area, groups with more dollars to burn are taking ad placements to the districts of congressmen whom they believe can be swayed by public pressure.

For example, Centro, a digital media logistics firm, recently worked on an issue campaign related to healthcare that targeted 28 states. It began in August and more recently heavied up its media buy, said Grace Briscoe, Centro’s director.

Purple Strategies’ Haynes predicts there will be more communications campaigns and advertising early in President Obama’s second term than there was during his first. “This president and this Congress now have a track record for people to examine, and they have a better idea of what [the politicians’] priorities are going to be and where the targets are going to be if there are going to be [tax and spending] cuts,” said Haynes.

In addition to ad campaigns surrounding the federal budget, ad campaign topics are likely to include energy and climate change as well as immigration and healthcare.

There are also policy debates on a more local level, said Tim Busch, evp, co-COO of Nexstar Broadcasting Group. “One of the bigger issues in the Northeast is fracking. New York State has yet to come to a decision on whether to allow it. And in Pennsylvania, there’s a hue and cry about how much there is.”

The extent of ads tied to the federal budget depends on how quickly the president and Congress resolve the issue. “If there’s a grand bargain, it could happen very quickly, and industries won’t have time to mobilize against it,” Haynes said. But as with the healthcare debate in 2009, the issue could drag on for months.

“As proposals get floated about where the cuts should come, [the messages from various constituencies] will change from pre-emptive to reactive. They’ll get much sharper, and the threats will be more vociferous,” Haynes predicted.