During the presidential primary campaign, the news media have operated as if nothing’s worth covering unless a clip of Donald Trump can illustrate it. Within 24 hours of airing, Trump’s first TV spot—a sloppy, racist rehash showing footage of migrants swarming over “our southern border” in a scene that was actually shot in Morocco—ran at least 60 times on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News as “free media,” and that’s not counting all the network freebies. The real-estate mogul claims that he’ll spend $2 million a week to run this and future spots as paid commercials—though, when a tweet is worth a thousand ad buys, it’s hard to see why he’d have to.
The fear among the political class has been that Trump’s thus far ad-less success—based on social media, celebrity, and the press giving him endless airtime in exchange for ratings, could spell the end of presidential political advertising as we know it. Maybe Trump threatens the very infrastructure of big-money fund-raising that feeds modern air-war campaigns, robbing the establishment of the ultimate tool in its war chest. Not to mention campaign consultants of their hefty 15 percent on the ad buys.
The lesson has seemed to be that, for the first time in modern political presidential campaign history, TV advertising may no longer matter, or, as a Lloyd Grove column put it, “Donald Trump Destroyed the Political Campaign Ad.”
The politicos may be paranoid, but that doesn’t mean nobody is out to get them. The futility of political advertising this season seems to be proven by a single staggering fact: So-called early “front-runner” Jeb Bush and his PAC allies have spent over $100 million on advertising to reach a humiliating 3.3 average in national polls, while Trump averages 35 points and has put up, until now, a mere few hundred thousand.
If nothing else, Trump’s first TV ad has finally brought some national attention to his rivals’ commercials, which for months now have been screaming in forests empty of media to hear them. In truth, there hasn’t been much to say about this year’s GOP primary spots. There are exceptions, like the controversial Ted Cruz ad showing his elementary-school daughter reading from “The Grinch Who Lost Her Emails,” or an earlier Kasich spot likening Trump to the Nazis. But for the most part the primary ad campaign has been devoid of the creative ferment of the past few cycles that’s led to masterpieces like “Demon Sheep” and “I am not a witch.”
In part, the avalanche of negative ads we’re just now beginning to see are underwhelming because the GOPers are afraid to take on the front-runner. Most of the spots are about jockeying for second or third or even fourth place in Iowa or New Hampshire. It’s already adding up to a cacophony of voices squabbling over ultra-thin slices of the pie—candidates canceling one another out, taking interchangeable shots at one another over who’s too much like Obama, too weak on immigrants, or too inexperienced. And sometimes their insults on the trail slam against their ads, as Christie’s did when he told reporters that Rubio “can’t slime his way to the White House,” while in his latest ad he swears that it’s a “profound moral duty” for Republicans to stand united.
More to the point, there’s been nothing yet like Mitt Romney’s serial carpet bombing of one fringe rival after another in 2012, when multimillion-dollar ad buys in successive primary states chewed through pesky diehards like Newt Gingrich until Rick Santorum finally hung up his sweater-vest. The GOP’s party discipline was enforced by those ads, but it was all pretty nasty for Mitt and everybody else.
To prevent that from happening again, the RNC has re-jiggered the Republican primaries, curtailing the number of debates and shortening the primary schedule. But Trump has made a hash of those well-laid plans. And, of course, he’s taken to new media like no one thought a Republican capable of. For more than a decade now web ads and YouTube clips have been undercutting the power of national TV. The screens in people’s lives are no longer a campfire America gathers around; now it’s more like an arsonist’s delight. Besides, fire-starter Trump’s tweets and soundbites, about low-energy Jeb or Canadian-born Cruz’s being ineligible for the presidency, may be more effective than the old-fashioned attack ads we’ve grown bored with.
So, again, why is Trump bothering to spend $2 million a week on TV spots? Howard Fineman has speculated that Trump is “spreading” around money to keep the local TV stations happy—it’s walking-around money for small-state media owners.
The importance of TV advertising may be in a slump, but it could well reassert itself later in the primaries, as the GOP field narrows, and in the general campaign. Hillary is likely to go for traditional, big-budget spots that try to 3 a.m. Trump (or Cruz or whoever). She is the anti-Trump, controlled, cautious, and about as spontaneous as a Galapagos turtle, but always on message. Trump, of course, is erratic, irrepressible, and unpredictable, but that is his message. It’ll be fire vs. water, Godzilla vs. Mothra, the Penquin vs. Batman, fought out by two celebrities of roughly equal mega-wattage. How will advertising bottle what each candidate offers?
Trump’s first ad, really only memorable for the “mistake” of confusing Moroccans for Mexicans, was standard fear-mongering style, as cheesy in its way as a Trump hotel lobby.
And maybe that’s the real lesson—racism just doesn’t need big budgets or high-production values to work.