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Political Advertising|By Elizabeth Wilner, June 6, 2016

It's tough to convey in words the relentless sameness and lameness of most political television ads. Candidates pounding podiums before cheering crowds. Candidates talking at town halls with hypnotized audience members nodding. Candidates striding around job sites. Collages of newscasts, headlines and still photos. Most local-level, congressional and even presidential ads contain at least a few of these giveaways that basically announce: here's yet another humdrum political commercial.

Bernie's "America" was a relief—as well as a hark back to a golden age of highly produced ads. Golden-hour picture-postcard footage. A familiar song instead of a familiar rant. The messaging of most ads is just as monotonous as the packaging. Republicans and Democrats have been banging the same drums for years or even decades about Social Security, Medicare, Obamacare, Wall Street banks, taxes and corporate loopholes, Iraq and terrorism, guns and abortion.

I've started and stopped drafting this column half a dozen times, in part for not being enough of a writer to really, viscerally communicate the uninspired state of political ad-making, and in part because the ad-makers I know are conscientious professionals who seem to take pride in their work.

Then I click through each day's new commercials from races around the country and think, no wonder we're questioning whether TV ads still work in politics. Yes, Donald Trump has taken us to school on manipulating earned media over paid media. Yes, we're seeing seismic shifts in how we consume content.

But by phoning it in, especially in a year when voters are desperately seeking the authentic and apolitical, ad-makers may be doing as much to bring down their business as anything else. The TV industry is showing signs of no longer taking their lion's share of the ad budget for granted; the TV ad-makers aren't.

My experience at CMAG is unique. No one is meant to see every political ad — only those for races in the media markets where they live. This must be what media consultants tell themselves in going back year after year to the same brackish well.

But like flooding in Texas, the same parts of the country are getting pounded over and over. If you live in politically competitive America, you may go for months without seeing any campaign ads. But when the season hits, you get swamped with spots for races up and down the ballot that, if you squint even a little, all seem the same.

No product advertiser would dare recycle their commercials year after year. Even the Budweiser Clydesdales get new adventures. Online ad-testing service Ace Metrix serves as a core business for producing ads , but also testing political ones. They find the average score across all nationally advertised brands they've tested this year is 546 (on a scale of one to 950), but the average score across all political ads they've tested is 446. That's only among ads for higher offices, not local offices — i.e., the ads that should be higher quality. Ads by outside groups average even lower.

Outside groups are to political ad-making what credit default swaps were to community banking -- they have sucked the soul out of the industry and put it on a destructive path. Campaign finance laws make it tougher for super PACs to obtain compelling footage of the candidates they support. But their mission is to pile on, not stand out, giving ad-makers a lucrative license to cut and paste at will.

The start of our present state of mind-numbing redundancy was 2012, the first cycle when super PACs were active from start to finish. In Wisconsin, the same clip of now-Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D) swearing, "you're damn right" appeared in eight different ads broadcast by three different groups and aired, all told, more than 10,000 times. (For context, only two ads in the current presidential race have aired more than 10,000 times, both across multiple states.)

In the GOP's 2016 presidential primary, hey, super PACs started off positive. Um, great? All 14 positive ads by Chris Christie's PAC showed him speaking at town halls with his wife and voters nodding back at him.

While the science of political targeting already has done a couple laps around the track since 2012, the art of ad-making has stood still. Even when ads are tested, they're tested in isolation. No one is shown an ad in a context that simulates living with that ad and countless others just like it for weeks or months on end.

The problem also may be diluting the potential that data science and technology have brought to ad targeting. You can aim a TV commercial at a single household on a block, or at a segment of voters who might be persuadable on a particular issue, but what if the ad looks just like any other?

Maybe political TV ad-making will just keep on down this path, helping to relegate itself toward the bottom of the toolbox. Or maybe the data loop will close and the analytics nerds who right now are starting to venture into media buying also will start venturing into media consulting. Or, maybe the creative juices flowing into digital advertising from a younger generation of platform-agnostic ad-makers will start to flow upstream.

There's no data to bear out my hunch that the creative side, or lack thereof, is eroding the effectiveness of TV advertising as much as any other trend. No one has released any studies of the effects of these deluges of redundant ads every other year. Candidates will continue to win despite routine ads and lose despite original ones.

But nor is there any evidence, at least not yet, of ads making the critical difference for a candidate while there's mounting evidence of it doing the opposite. Hard as it is to put into words how same and lame most ads are, this election cycle may start putting it into results.


CMAG's Madeline Meininger and Mitchell West contributed to this column.