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Campaigns to Compete for Ads During Olympic Games

Oli Scarff/Getty Images
The Summer Olympics coincide with each presidential election, but the timing of the 2012 London Games provides an opportune time for campaigns to reach a broad viewership.

There’s good news on the horizon for attention-deprived candidates: Millions of voters will soon be glued to their television screens in a normally dead time for campaign advertising.

The bad news is that it’s the Summer Olympics, and candidates and outside groups will have to spend a premium to reach those viewers.

It’s easily one of the most watched events on television all year, but unlike the Super Bowl, the Olympics extend across two weeks and take place in the middle of the campaign.

“It’s great context, too,” according to one Democratic media consultant. “People are already primed to think about their country.”

The Summer Olympics occur every four years — coinciding with a presidential election each time — but the timing of the games varies and can affect campaigns differently.

This year’s games in London run July 27 to Aug. 12, wrapping up two weeks before the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. Four years ago, the summer games in Beijing ran Aug. 8-24, immediately preceding the Democratic convention in Denver, and posed a unique challenge because of a 12-hour time difference and tape-delayed coverage.

Unlike four years ago, the proliferation of outside groups could lead to more spending during the Olympics because of diminishing opportunities to spend money later in the cycle thanks to overcrowded airwaves.

Campaigns don’t necessarily have to pepper their ads with clichéd Olympic references, such as getting a gold medal in job creation or finishing last on the economy, but there are opportunities to tailor their spots to match the inspirational mood.

At a minimum, campaigns might need to dial back their heated rhetoric.

“It isn’t the time for the hardest-hitting ad,” according to one Democratic strategist. “A negative ad could backfire.”

Restore Our Future, a GOP super PAC, has carried much of the load of negative ads on behalf of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney up to this point but will likely unveil a new, more positive line of ads during the Olympics. The group is spending $7.2 million in 11 battleground states from July 31 (four days after the games begin) to Aug. 9 (three days before the games end).

According to the press release, the Restore Our Future ads are meant to counter President Barack Obama’s Olympic ad buy, which is reported to be $5.5 million. But the ad buys represent two different strategies in purchasing air time.

The Obama campaign chose a national buy that will give the president a presence on NBC as well as affiliated stations that will also have Olympic coverage, including MSNBC, CNBC, NBC Sports and Bravo.

On the surface, it may appear that the Obama campaign will be wasting money by airing ads in noncompetitive states, but at least one GOP media consultant disagrees.

“By the time you buy Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio and North Carolina, it’s almost more efficient to cover the nation,” according to one Republican media consultant.

The strategist also explained that buying directly through NBC can often lead to better ad placements and better cable penetration. “Local is not leftover, but it’s often less desirable,” the source added.

According to media trackers, Restore Our Future chose to negotiate with individual stations in specific markets, but a spokesperson for the group declined to discuss the strategy behind the tactic.

Neither strategy will let the campaigns choose specific, marquee events, such as women’s gymnastics, men’s basketball or anytime Michael Phelps is in the pool, but according to sources, a national buy often includes those top-ratings events as well as “filler events” with fewer viewers.

Of course, for the presidential campaigns, the Olympic buys are just part of a larger media strategy that includes airing other ads on non-NBC channels.

The large Olympic viewership is appealing to Congressional campaigns as well, but the entry fee and timing make it unlikely that most downballot candidates will enter the fray.

Candidates could aim for cheaper ad placements on the cable Olympic coverage. But rather than spending a small fortune to get one ad during the women’s
10-meter air pistol competition, party strategists will likely advise their candidates to “stick to their plans,” which include marshaling their resources until after Labor Day, when more voters are paying attention to politics. Candidates typically budget their ad campaigns by starting from Election Day and working backward through the calendar until the campaign runs out of money.

Some candidates don’t have the luxury of avoiding the Olympics because of their primaries.

The high-profile GOP runoff in the Texas Senate race between Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and former state Solicitor General Ted Cruz is July 31, and competitive primaries in Tennessee, Michigan, Missouri, Washington and Hawaii all fall in the middle of the Olympic action.

Voters will also go to the polls in Connecticut, Florida, Minnesota and Wisconsin on Aug. 14, just two days after the closing ceremony.

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