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Political Advertising|By Elizabeth Wilner, July 15, 2014

Not everyone loves the smell of napalm in the morning. Among the results of the first comprehensive look at the role of TV programming in the 2014 air wars, CMAG has found that airings of political ads during early morning and late-night TV are the least likely to be negative. Political spots aired during primetime TV are most likely to be negative, followed by “prime access,” the hour just before primetime.

Other findings from our Harley Ellenberger’s interactive data visualization of broadcast TV advertising in 2014’s closest races:

- Early morning (5am-8:59am) is by far the most popular “daypart”—i.e., time of day—for airing political ads overall, accounting for 24% of all spot occurrences covered in the study. A gap of 8,000 spots separates early morning (34,576) from the next most preferred daypart, daytime (9am-3:59pm; 26,608).

- Local news remains by far the preferred programming genre for airing political ads overall, claiming 43% of all spots included in the study and seeing nearly three times as many spots as the next most preferred genre, talk shows (61,039 to 21,054).

- Crime shows, followed by entertainment magazine shows, see the highest shares of negative ads out of all spots aired within those genres (76.5% and 70.7%, respectively).

The study was conducted of general election advertising in key Senate, House and governor races rated as “toss-up” by the Cook Political Report as of July 14.

Per Harley’s dataviz, 70.5% of all spot occurrences—or individual airings of TV ads—during primetime programming (8pm-10:59pm) were either totally negative or contrast, followed by prime access (7-7:59pm) at 68.1%. By comparison, 65.1% of all spot occurrences during early morning programming and 63.4% of spots airing during late fringe (11:30pm-4:59am) were negative or contrast.

A 7-point swing isn’t exactly an abyss, of course—especially when you consider that early morning has seen the highest number of spots overall, at nearly 35,000, followed by daytime at nearly 27,000.

Early morning’s dominance—between spots that have aired during early morning local news and spots bought locally during the network morning shows—isn’t a big surprise. In an era when voters are increasingly consuming content on their own timetables and on second (and third and fourth) screens, one truism remains: people wake up in the morning. And when they turn on their TVs to get their news, weather, and daily fill of cute kids and amazing pets, media buyers probably figure, they may not want to see a whole lot of 30-second doses of buzzkill.

But when it comes to the stuff of primetime and prime access, such as crime, entertainment mags, dramas, and sports, media buyers figure viewers are already tuning in for some form of violence or character assassination. Attacks ads fit right in.

The least likely programs to see negative messages among the political ads in their commercial breaks? Technically, it’s the Sunday shows and other public affairs programs at 55.4%, followed by soaps at 61.8%.

That said, again, there’s share and then there’s volume. Only 233 political spots in toss-up 2014 races have aired during Sunday and public affairs shows. Note that some public affairs shows refuse to sell airtime to political advertisers. Whereas more than 61,000 spots have aired during newscasts.

Because local stations can control how much time they devote to their own newscasts, we’re likely to see a growing trend of stations choosing to carve out more airtime for political advertisers. This can be done in two ways—either by adding more news programming to create more of this ultra-desirable inventory, or by shaving a few minutes off of current news programs—as the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi documented in the Washington, DC market in 2012.

The picture for local cable differs because of its niche networks. While a local TV station can offer many program genres across a single day (local news, talk and game shows, soaps, entertainment magazines, crime and sports, etc.), cable networks organize themselves to be genre-specific, based on certain demographic audiences: the cable news nets for news, the ESPNs for sports, TBS for sitcoms, E!, etc.

Local cable advertisers don’t need to choose a particular time of day or a particular news break to reach a specific demographic audience or type of voter, per Tim Kay of local cable industry rep NCC Media. “The networks they choose provide that position.”

Other slides in Harley’s dataviz look at unique advertisements—the 2,500 actual political commercials CMAG has reviewed and coded so far in 2014. While not as revealing as spot occurrence data, there’s something to be derived from the messaging in the ads themselves that advertisers decide to put on the air. For example, Republican attacks on Obamacare and the response they have forced from Democrats have made healthcare the top shared issue in terms of the number of unique commercials aired about it by both sides.

Another oft-used substantive message across the pool of both Republican and Democratic-sponsored unique ads is budget/government spending. Attacks on President Obama in general (“Obama message – anti”) and on healthcare reform in particular (“Obama plan – anti”) are also top Republican messages in terms of unique commercials made.

Note the relatively sparse use of ads about “jobs/unemployment”—another data point suggesting the recession is behind us.