For those unused to political campaign advertising, they may feel like they have been thrown into a vortex of chaos. In reality, there are only a few basic things to remember about political advertising.
Know who your voters are
You should know exactly the type of voter your candidate needs to capture, and then target that group. Do not waste money on people you know will never vote for your person; your resources should be targeted at those who not only can be persuaded, but on those that consistently vote.
Develop a communications plan
Once a budget has been established, begin by planning advertising not just for paid media, but through social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram—and make sure someone thoroughly knowledgeable is running them and a well-constructed campaign website that is kept up-to-date. Ensure supporters can have information e-mailed to them.
On the non-digital side, put together brochures and press kits, designate someone to handle press releases, and make sure that everything that comes from the campaign office has been run through spell check and vetted by at least two people. Professionalism wins votes.
Know what your candidate is entitled to
When dealing with advertising in radio or television, the Federal Communications Commission rules are quite clear what candidates are entitled to. Both industries must sell time to campaigns at what is called the lowest unit rate, meaning that the lowest rate being charged at a certain time to someone else is what the candidate must be charged.
As an example, Candidate Smith wants to run a 30-second commercial during the 6 a.m. hour on a radio station. The station gave Bob’s Drive-In a better deal than everyone else, only charging them $50 instead of the usual $75 per 30 seconds in that time spot. The candidate only has to pay $50—not $75. Keep in mind, though, that the lowest unit rate only applies 45 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election.
Remember that other candidates can purchase airtime on the same station—and they must be given the opportunity to purchase equal time and at the lowest unit rate. This is referred to as “reasonable access”.
Run ads through focus groups before releasing them
The political landscape is littered with ads that seemed like a good idea at the time; the execution, however, can leave a candidate doing more apologizing than the opponent they attacked.
In the 2014 Texas gubernatorial contest, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and state Senator Wendy Davis went head-to-head for the governor’s office. Davis felt Abbott, who has been in a wheelchair since 1984 when an oak tree fell on him, had worked against other victims by advocating for laws limiting punitive damages, despite the fact that he himself received $10.7 million in a lawsuit for his injuries.
The resulting ad displayed an empty wheelchair, combined with instances where Abbott sided against plaintiffs in lawsuits and concluded with the words, “Greg Abbott: he’s not for you.” Immediately, there was a backlash. The Washington Post called it “one of the nastiest campaign ads you will ever see” while Mother Jones magazine, no friend of Abbott’s, said, “Abbott shouldn’t be off limits to criticism because he’s in a wheelchair. But there are ways to make a point….and this ad is not the way to make that point.”
Davis lost the election. The moral of the story: always run your ad by potential voters first.
The candidate is still the best advertisement
A well-prepped candidate can win more voters than any slickly-produced ad. Make sure that they are available for local events, and look for ways to get positive mentions in local media.
Word of mouth is still an excellent tool for campaigns, so take even small opportunities to get the candidate good press. People who are impressed will tell their friends, and that may be the difference on Election Day.
In the end, good advertising will usually not save an incompetent candidate. But with a good candidate and an awareness of the basics of political advertising, many campaigns can be–and are–successful.