Hot races spark bonanza of TV ads in N.C.

Constant sniping is one of the hazards of living in a battleground state. Turn on your TV and see.

There's the two old men in the rocking chairs lamenting “that's not the Liddy Dole I know.”

There's a yapping dog representing “Fibber Hagan.”

Garbage barges, Joe the Plumber and armored trucks hauling off your money are some of the instant stars of television these days as political commercials clog the airwaves before Nov. 4.

While ads are part of any election season, North Carolina is getting what may end up being an unprecedented load this year because of heavy spending in the state by supporters of Barack Obama and John McCain.

North Carolina is one of roughly eight “battleground states” where voters are split and political watchers believe the election is likely to be decided. Well over $10million has already been spent on presidential ad time here. Spending is also heavy in North Carolina's U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races.

“None of us expected to have three unbelievably close races like we're having,” Barry Leffler, general manager of Raleigh NBC affiliate WNCN, said Friday. “Nobody expected the state to be in play in the presidential race.”

TV political spending in Charlotte, the state's largest media market, was estimated at $19 million early this year and now may go as high as $23 million, said Shawn Harris, station manager of WJZY (Channel 46) and WMYT (Channel 55), both owned by Raleigh-based Capitol Broadcasting.

Early voters unswayed

Sometimes the sheer volume and negative tone of campaign ads turn voters off.

“I tend to turn the channel when they're on,” Robin Rose of south Charlotte said Friday after casting a ballot in early voting at Central Piedmont Community College.

One ad she found particularly annoying was for lieutenant governor candidate Robert Pittenger. It featured pop-up pigs wearing tuxedos, smoking cigars, acting like pirates and drinking tea. “I'm an intelligent person. I don't need cartoon pigs to help me make up my mind,” Rose said.

Another early voter, Debra Hill of northeast Charlotte, says she reads voraciously and follows MSNBC to keep in touch with the issues rather than relying on campaign ads.

“I tune them out mostly,” she said, adding that negative ads add to the divisiveness at election time.

Ads a respite in bad year

Political ad dollars are good news to stations, which like other media are suffering from a nationwide plunge in advertising spending. Automotive ads, a key sector for TV, are off about 25 percent this year and spending in most other categories is down.

But the volume of political ads also squeezes local advertisers, who find it difficult to buy time for their products or have their ads bumped until the election is over.

“If you didn't get something in a long time ago, it's not getting in,” said Richard Halliburton , president of the American Advertising Federation Charlotte and senior media buyer at Specialized Media Services.

TV advertising tends to be a commodity business in which supply and demand dictates rates. When stations have lots of ad spots to sell, rates tend to drop, and vice-versa.

Because of the drop in the national ad market, rates have remained fairly steady, stations say. But a spot on a top-rated prime-time show these days could fetch $12,000 or more, assuming one would be available.

Keeping the local advertisers happy is important right now, said Nick Simonette, general manager of Charlotte's WBTV (Channel 3). Some accounts have to be shifted away from buying spots in news shows, which political campaigns eagerly snap up.

“After Nov. 4, these people are gone. I'm going to try to do everything I can to accommodate our regular clients,” he said.

Ad strategies changing

Halliburton said he has noticed a shift in more political advertising going toward the Internet, which doesn't surprise him.

“When you look down through advertising in history, it has gone where the eyeballs are,” he said. “Billboards followed cars.”

Media habits are now shifting toward computers and cell phones, particularly among the younger demographics, he said. “Mobile phones are going to be the be-all and end-all for reaching people. We have to figure out how to crack that.”

And the future?

Halliburton said he wouldn't be surprised to see more political ads embedded in video games by the next election. “Maybe you'll crash in a racing game and hit a wall that says ‘Obama in 2012.'”

Staff Writer Jim Morrill contributed.