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Political Advertising|By Elizabeth Wilner, January 29, 2013

The 2012 presidential campaign may have fired up Washington, DC local television advertising, but the same can’t be said for the presidential agenda. One exception, President Obama’s “all of the above” stance on energy, has brought out industry big spenders oil, natural gas and coal. But Obama’s other priorities haven’t exactly produced a gold rush of advocacy and influencer-focused advertising on local TV.

Just another trend for DC stations to ride out. Like the area economy overall, local broadcasters may be less vulnerable to outside-the-Beltway conditions but are sensitive to arrhythmias within. Any blockage in the healthy flow of policymaking can impact advocacy ad sales. Like persistent gridlock. Or a 112th Congress that was least productive since anyone started keeping tabs.

The business of Washington advocacy and influencer advertising has become more lucrative but also more diffuse. More corporate brands with public policy interests are joining the alphabet soup of associations and alliances that have always made DC commercial breaks unique. But cable, especially cable news, seems to be the TV platform of choice for these new campaigns.

Now comes a presidential agenda that isn’t sending the alphabet advertisers running to local stations en masse. AARP? Not really. NRA? No.

Big issues, little advertising

Many of Obama’s second-term goals don’t typically inspire big advertising bucks. For all the churning over guns on the ground, there’s been almost nothing on the air. Immigration has never inspired much national or DC-focused ad activity. Whatever Obama has in mind for climate change may be DC stations’ best hope to boost ad sales because any opponents are likely to be flush with advertising cash.

A spring budget battle or real momentum to reform Social Security and Medicare may also help. The nation’s fiscal straits have inspired steady but hardly surging waves of DC-based TV ads. Some new(ish) voices, yes: Public Notice and Crossroads GPS have joined the ranks. A union trifecta targeting Virginia’s Senators has been the biggest recent spender on the issue on DC stations. Other stakeholders like AARP have invested most heavily in national network and cable.

Sequestration doesn’t bode well for local TV ad sales, either. Defense companies historically haven’t waged war on the air. Your typical defense brand ad looks like a July Fourth parade float and airs during NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Boeing already has been a top-three public affairs advertiser on Meet for four years running, according to Kantar Media CMAG; Northrop Grumman was a top-10 advertiser on the show last year.

All of this comes after Obama’s health care bill didn’t deliver advertising big mo during his first term. What could have been an epic air war in 2009 was downgraded to a major skirmish after Obama won over the pharmaceutical industry. Some health care stakeholders did rank among the top 10 advocacy advertisers on national cable that year: anti-reform Conservatives for Patients’ Rights and the US Chamber of Commerce and pro-reform odd bedfellows PHrMA and Families USA. But on DC stations, only the Chamber ranked among the top 10. Net neutrality and climate change drew higher-spending advertisers in 2009.

Like Betty White, the Affordable Care Act has had a heck of a late career—just not on DC TV. The Department of Health and Human Services has been a top-10 public affairs advertiser on national cable with commercials promoting the benefits of the law. So far, HHS ad spending has been highest in federal election years. “Obamacare” ranked second only to the economy in mentions in GOP campaign advertising around the country in 2012. Today, H&R Block is pitching its tax-time services by warning viewers that the Act might affect their April filings.

Here come the brands

More and more brands are entering the influencer ad arena, creating their own positive—patriotic, job-creating, socially or health-conscious—image advertising instead of relying on their DC reps. Coke, not just the American Beverage Association, is now airing obesity-aware ads on cable news; Shell Oil, not just America’s Natural Gas Alliance, is promoting the benefits of fracking.

The catch for DC stations is that the spending doesn’t seem to be flowing to their newscasts, when Washingtonians tune into local broadcast most heavily. It’s flowing toward national cable—primarily to CNN, FOX News, Headline News, CNBC and MSNBC, in that order, as well as ESPN and the Golf Channel—to pay for ads that will be seen during the Washington workday while helping to shape a company’s reputation nationwide.

The amount collectively spent by the top 10 public affairs advertisers on national cable has risen over the past four years; the amount spent by their top 10 counterparts on local DC stations has not. Very few brands rank among the top advertisers on DC stations: in 2012, just Chevron and a troubled Chesapeake Energy; in 2011, just a merger-minded AT&T (at #2); in 2010, a Gulf-polluting BP (at #1); and in 2009, an anti-net neutrality AT&T, plus Chevron and Northrop Grumman.

Companies seeking closure for committing national sins—AIG, BP—are choosing cable. After the year of the spill, BP cut way back its local DC advertising.

As much as energy spends on advertising, the only energy interest with a consistently top-10 presence on local DC stations has been the American Petroleum Institute; the only energy brand with an even occasional top-10 presence on local broadcast has been Chevron. When Shell got in the game in 2012, it debuted at number one among public affairs advertisers—on national cable.

The “smart grid” war between GE, IBM and Siemens unfolded on national cable. In 2009, IBM was the top public affairs advertiser on cable; GE was third. In 2010, Siemens was third and IBM was tenth. Today, IBM and Siemens ads are plastered across the shuttle and Acela departure gates instead of airing on DC TV. (Former NBC parent GE remains a stalwart advertiser on Meet the Press.)

DC stations can take comfort from their huge haul from 2012. Virginia’s presidential and Senate battleground status and Maryland’s prospective new casino boosted DC’s big four stations into the top 10 of all US stations for political ad revenue in 2012; NBC’s WRC ranked first, FOX’s WTTG ranked second, ABC’s WJLA third, and CBS’s WUSA seventh. Area broadcasters just dodged a bullet that may have sent more presidential advertising to local cable with the death of a plan to have Virginia dole out its electoral votes by congressional district.

Even if corporate ad dollars don’t flow stations’ way, the alphabet soup business isn’t going anywhere. When one big issue battle fades, another always replaces it. Big Soda’s image problem has propelled the American Beverage Association up the list of top-10 local advocacy advertisers from eighth in 2010 to number one in 2012. Stations just aren’t drawing the corporate ad dollars that would ease their dependence on Washington’s progress and priorities.

Elizabeth Wilner, VP Kantar Media Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG), is Contributing Editor at the Cook Political Report

CMAG’s Andrew Fitzgerald contributed to this article.