WASHINGTON – Candidates, parties and their special interest supporters spent a record $1 billion on television ads in the 2002 election cycle – double the amount spent in the 1998 midterm elections.
The Alliance for Better Campaigns, which supports free ad time for candidates, blamed the broadcast industry for the twofold increase.
"Running for political office has never been as costly as it was in 2002, and the biggest reason is that we continue to allow broadcasters to auction off the right to political speech," said Paul Taylor, president of the Alliance, which released the ad financing report on Monday.
The report said a total of 1.5 million political spots aired on 573 stations in the nation's top 100 markets.
But some media experts say broadcasters' high prices aren't so much to blame as the flood of ads that hit the market this year. They say the leap in revenue comes from special interest groups, who are putting up their own ads in droves and have been able to front the money to pay for them.
"More ads are being run and that’s just going to continue," said Art Hackney, a Republican media consultant for Edmonds, Hackney and Associates, who aided Republican Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens’ victorious re-election bid as well as Sen. Frank Murkowski’s successful bid for Alaska governor.
Hackney said special interests — or "third parties" like the National Rifle Association, the Sierra Club and various labor union coalitions — became the driving force behind the record number of ads in 2002 in part because they were jump-starting their takeover of the soft money race that national parties lost after the new campaign finance laws went into effect Nov. 6, the day after the election.
"With the proliferation of state campaign laws and what could be a precursor to the effect of the laws nationally, what we’re seeing is the proliferation of third party groups spending money on ads nationally," said Hackney.
"Part of it was that people are confused about the new campaign finance laws and figured this was their last hurrah," explained Fred Davis of Hollywood-based Strategic Perception Inc., which worked on Republican Sonny Perdue's successful campaign to oust Democrat Gov. Roy Barnes in Georgia.
But whether the escalation in ad monies actually translated into better quality ads is still up for debate.
Gary Nordlinger, a Democratic media consultant for Nordlinger Associates, said ads diluted a market that was already decided on most of its choices, and he suggested that too much of a good thing makes for mediocre products.
"The irony is that television ads had no impact on this election," he said. "There was a huge flood of ads this year and voters just tuned them out."
Nordlinger said he believes that campaign finance laws won’t drive up the cost of ads or the money spent by third parties in the long run because they will become more ineffective with voters.
"I’m looking at less money in advertising because the voters will prefer it that way," Nordlinger speculated.
But not everyone agrees.
Jim McLaughlin, a partner in Republican pollster McLaughlin & Associates, said he thinks special interests will continue to pour money into ads at an exponential rate and that the medium will continue to be an important part of the election campaign.
"There is some stuff that is absolutely stunning and some that is as bad as it’s ever been. It covers the spectrum," McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin said that broadcasters are driving up the costs of advertising, and noted that it cost $2 million per week to run ads statewide in Florida.
In the meantime, production values cost only $5,000 to $10,000, meaning many ads are the same poor quality productions that have always been on the air, but are now just more expensive to run.
Of course, poor productions can sometimes have the effect they seek. For example, an ad in Montana paid for by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, suggested that Mike Taylor, Republican challenger to Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., bilked money from the federal student loan program while running a health and beauty school in the early 1980s.
The ad had viewers watching because it showed images of Taylor's old public television infomercials featuring him in a butterfly collar, massaging a man's face with one of his moisturizer products.
The images subtly suggested that Taylor was gay, he charged at the time he announced he was dropping out of the race.