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Presidential Campaigns May Consider Super Bowl Ads to Target Voters

Drink beer, eat candy, buy a car. Now add a new pitch to next year's lineup of Super Bowl television ads: Vote for me.

Politics? On Super Bowl Sunday?

As states line up to hold presidential primaries on the first Tuesday in February, the Feb. 3 Super Bowl could look super inviting and super expensive to presidential campaigns eager to deliver a knockout punch.

"That is a very ripe and timely target," said Mark McKinnon, chief media strategist for President Bush in 2000 and 2004 and now an adviser to Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign. "It would reach a huge audience at a very critical time. I think campaigns will look very closely at that."

That campaigns would give serious thought to advertising on Super Bowl Sunday illustrates how a packed primary schedule in early February could upend the traditional pace and the time-tested strategies of presidential elections.

At the moment, California, New York and New Jersey are the Feb. 5 giants, muscling their way up the schedule to accompany the likes of Missouri, Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Oklahoma and Utah. But legislatures or governors in Texas, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia and several other states also want to be in on the early sweepstakes.

The candidates must first run a January gantlet of primaries and caucuses in Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina. To add to their stress levels, Florida now wants to hold its primary on Jan. 29.

That leaves precious little time to campaign across the country and places a greater premium on advertising. The candidates already are raising super-size sums of money to prepare for the accelerated primary pace. Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, both Democrats, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, all reported raising more than $20 million in the first quarter of this year.

"Super Bowl right now? If I had to put the odds on it I'd say they are one in 10 that a campaign would actually go out and do that," said Evan Tracey, chief operating officer at TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group, a company that tracks political advertising. "Before this Feb. 5 primary, those odds would have been one in 1 million."

The Super Bowl aside, candidates, strategists and their media buyers will have difficult choices heading into Feb. 5. A weeklong ad that runs statewide in California or New Jersey, for example, can cost between $2 million and $4 million, depending on how often it airs. Three ads like that could create a serious financial crunch for a campaign.

So the campaigns will have to decide whether to compete region by region, market by market, station by station or whether it's ultimately more efficient to run national network ads, a relative rarity in politics.

Democratic strategist Tad Devine, a top adviser in Al Gore's and John Kerry's presidential campaigns, believes the terrain will be as complicated this time as it was for Michael Dukakis in 1988, when the eventual Democratic nominee had to fend off challengers such as Gore and Dick Gephardt. Then, Dukakis ran positive ads in some states, and negative ads in others.

"We're likely to see a similar situation where campaigns will make tactical decisions about what opponents they want to face later in the process," Devine said. "They'll do different thinking in different places. You will not see the one ad being broadcast all over the place."

Added Tracey, "The media buyers are going to earn their money this time around."

It won't be cheap.

A 30-second spot in this year's Super Bowl cost as much as $2.6 million — enough to consume the proceeds of a recent Clinton fundraising gala in Washington, D.C. Politicians can get a bit of a break, though, because under federal law they are entitled to the lowest rate charged in that time slot for that broadcast. That could shave a few hundred thousand dollars off the top price.

And the ad better be good.

"You can't run your same old schlock on the Super Bowl," Tracey said. "You probably have to pay a higher price for doing that."

It could be worth it.

Consider that 94.1 million people watched this year's Super Bowl game, according to Nielsen Media Research. Consider, too, that the most-watched moment of the broadcast, as measured by TiVo rewinds and downloads, was not a highlight of the game but an ad for Bud Light.

Of the more than 20 states contemplating or already scheduled to hold a Feb. 5 primary or caucus, 14 have a total of 18 NFL teams. Chances are good that a primary state will have a team in the game with a sizable and attentive audience to boot.

What's more, a good Super Bowl ad benefits from vast media attention, extending the buzz it generates for days. "If your spot is really good, you can end up quadrupling the benefit of that ad," said Tobe Berkovitz, associate dean of communications at Boston University and an expert on political advertising.

But, Berkovitz cautioned: "You run a piece of junk and you're going to take a hammering that will be incredibly destructive to your campaign."

Running a national network ad would defy a trend in political campaigns to use "micro-targeting" techniques to reach voters with surgical precision.

Forced by strategic and financial considerations, campaigns might forgo a national ad and purchase Super Bowl slots allotted to local network affiliates, strategists said. That would avoid the high production costs necessary to be in the same class with Budweiser or FedEx and their huge advertising budgets.

It would also give campaigns the flexibility to adjust their ads to any shifts in the political terrain and concentrate on states that are in play for them.

"What we're more likely to see at that juncture is a negative ad from someone at the last minute before voting," Devine, the Democratic strategist, said. "Those ads can be very impactful no matter what the quality of production — and they can be memorable, too."

This year, VoteVets.org, a group critical of the Iraq war, made a small splash with a 30-second Super Bowl ad opposed to troop increases in Iraq. It only ran on three CBS affiliates — in Washington, D.C., Portland, Maine, and Duluth, Minn. To air the ad on one Washington station, the biggest market of the three, cost $91,000.

Politics and the Super Bowl have not always mixed well. In 2004, CBS refused to run an ad by the liberal group MoveOn.org that criticized President Bush's budget policies. CBS said it had a policy against running advocacy advertising.

Networks, however, have little choice but to accept ads from candidates, provided they meet the Federal Election Commission requirements for disclosure. Next year's game — Super Bowl XLII in Phoenix, Ariz. — will be aired by Fox Sports.