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Candidates' Ad Campaigns Follow Divergent Paths

While President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry are both flooding Ohio with television advertisements, a new study shows that the Republican incumbent has reached viewers more often in the rural markets of Zanesville and Lima, while the Democratic challenger and his allies have rolled up an edge in industrial Toledo, Columbus, Dayton and Cleveland.

In the Florida Panhandle, people have seen Bush's TV ads more frequently. In three major Missouri cities — Kansas City, St. Louis and Springfield — commercials from the Massachusetts senator or liberal groups favoring his election have been viewed more often.

These findings, from an analysis of campaign advertising made public Sunday, reveal that Bush and Kerry are following very different strategies as they chase after electoral votes in tightly contested states.

Bush's ads are saturating every nook of the battleground states, even small towns and rural areas where Republicans are expected to prevail. Kerry is placing his bets in bigger cities and suburbs and putting less emphasis on smaller media markets.

Such subtle variations in the purchase of TV time could play a significant role if the November election is as close as the one four years ago. Bush won Florida by 537 votes in 2000, and that state proved decisive.

"We are in such a competitive election that it is going to be won or lost at the margins, not only in the big markets but in the small markets," said Kenneth M. Goldstein, director of the Wisconsin Advertising Project at the University of Wisconsin. "None of us knows what the effect of TV advertising is, but surely it is worth more than 537 votes."

In the study, Nielsen Monitor-Plus and the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project examined data on presidential campaign ads aired on local TV stations from March 4 through June 20. It is the first such study to examine all 210 media markets nationwide, providing a comprehensive picture of the ad-buying patterns of Bush, Kerry and three anti-Bush groups: the Media Fund, the AFL-CIO and MoveOn.org and affiliated entities.

Because it examined ads run in smaller media markets, using data provided by Nielsen Monitor-Plus, the study filled some gaps in what was already known about the 2004 political ad battle.

The study did not include ads run on cable TV channels. Another company, TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group, tracks campaign ads for the Los Angeles Times in the top 100 media markets and on national cable TV.

The Wisconsin study did not examine the ads' content, another important factor. Most of Bush's ads have criticized Kerry; most of Kerry's have touted the Democrat's own biography and agenda. The majority of ads aired by the anti-Bush groups have attacked the president.

Among the study's highlights:

  • Nearly 60% of Americans live in areas that have not been targeted by presidential campaign ads on local TV. That includes nearly all of California, except for a few areas that have seen ads targeting the competitive neighboring states Nevada and Oregon.
  • Bush has reached viewers more often than his opponents in 31 of the 93 TV markets with presidential advertising activity. His campaign has raised more money overall than Kerry's and is expected to run a TV blitz after the senator is formally nominated at the Democratic National Convention in Boston next week.
  • Both sides are targeting women more than men and older voters more than younger voters. "Young viewers are notoriously difficult to reach through television advertising," said Jeff King, managing director of Nielsen Monitor-Plus.
  • Both sides are focusing their advertising on local newscasts and national network programs such as NBC's "Today" and ABC's "Good Morning America." They also are spending money to advertise during syndicated talk shows like "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "Dr. Phil" and "Live With Regis and Kelly" and game shows like "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!"

But the data suggest that Bush is pursuing male voters somewhat more intensively than Kerry by placing more of his ads on TV shows men like to watch. That includes crime shows like "NYPD Blue," "Law & Order" and "JAG."

"Where they differ, Bush is clearly going after men," Goldstein said.

The study measured the advertising by market, spot count and TV program ratings — a Nielsen specialty. The most-targeted markets overall were Toledo, Dayton, Kansas City, Columbus, Cleveland and St. Louis, in that order.

In Toledo, for example, the average household saw a presidential campaign ad about 300 times from March 4 — when Bush and his foes began to focus on the general election — to June 20. In St. Louis, the typical household saw such ads 280 times. (Often, an ad is seen many times over.) The other markets among the 10 most-targeted were, in order, Portland, Ore.; Erie, Pa.; Las Vegas; and Detroit.


Nick Anderson, Los Angeles Times. July 19, 2004.

Copyright © 2004 Los Angeles Times. All rights reserved.