Sheri Sadler Wolf spends her days wrestling with tough political questions. Questions like: Do people who watch "Married . . . With Children" vote? The other day, Wolf--the media director at Target Enterprises, a Hollywood firm that buys advertising for political campaigns--let a salesman try to convince her that they do.
"There is an untapped resource in the 18-to-49 (year-olds)," the TV ad salesman said, referring to the age group that tends to watch the sometimes crude Fox comedy. Hopeful that Wolf would buy time on his station, he continued in vain: "18-to-49s are generally undecided voters. They are the kind of guys you should be going after with 'Married . . . ' "
But Wolf knew better. She knew that her primary targets--likely voters--tend to be 35 and older. "For the dollars I can spend right now, do I have the flexibility to go anywhere except after my 35-plussers?" she asked, shaking her head. "Talk to me about 'Cops' and 'America's Most Wanted.' "
Over the next six weeks, until the June 7 primary, TV viewers will be bombarded by an increasing number of campaign messages. Although these ads may seem a cacophonous jumble, in fact each one is strategically placed to reach a specific group of voters.
That is why media buyers such as Wolf, who usually toil in obscurity, are crucial to a candidate's success. And that is why the closer the election, the more our democratic process may be reduced to closed-door debates about whether, dollar for dollar, "60 Minutes" or "Jeopardy!" is a better political buy.
John Riedl, general sales manager at KABC-TV Channel 7 in Los Angeles, says that depending on their budgets, campaigns consider two distinct strategies: "Buy 'Home Improvement,' 'Roseanne,' 'Murphy Brown,' 'Seinfeld.' Big ratings, one shot, pay a lot of money. (Or) get out of prime time and go into other (times of the day) that don't give you as big a rating and don't cost as much. 'Oprah.' 'Eyewitness News.' 'Wheel of Fortune.' "
The latter approach--commonly called "buying tonnage"--can definitely work, said Jim Margolis, former media adviser to state Treasurer Kathleen Brown's gubernatorial campaign. After all, he said, "People watching 'Wheel' and 'Jeopardy!' aren't just bubbas out there. They're everybody."
The stakes in the media buying game couldn't be much higher. In a state as large as California, broadcast advertisements--both on television and radio--are as close as most voters will get to their candidates. Campaigns pay dearly to connect with the electorate: sometimes more than $1,000 for every second of air time. To advertise when voters aren't watching is to risk defeat.
"The dollars that you spend on television are astounding. If you're wasting your money, you're just giving away votes," said Margolis, whose Washington firm resigned from Brown's campaign in March. "So do I want to go and buy a show like 'Love Connection'? . . . These are some of the most critical decisions that (a campaign) makes."
Making a smart media buy is not as simple as looking at the latest Nielsen ratings. For example, one might expect "Saturday Night Live" to skew to a younger, non-voting audience.
"Wrong," said Robert Nelson, an Orange County political consultant who specializes in media strategy. "It's all these old guys like me who still think they're 22 years old. Highly educated target voters--a damn good deal."
"The Simpsons," by contrast, is a very popular show, but pity the candidate who advertises there, many experts say. The reason: A significant chunk of viewers are children 2 to 11--future voters, maybe, but not the people a campaign needs to reach in this election year.
Media consultants base their decisions on focus groups and demographic research, ratings studies and pricing data. For helping to reach the right voters, they earn commissions that can run as high as 15%.
In California that can be a lot of money. The candidates for governor already have spent more than $3 million buying ad time. Rep. Michael Huffington (R-Santa Barbara) alone has spent more than $2 million to air his reasons for wanting to unseat U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Between now and the general election in November, statewide candidates will spend tens of millions of dollars to go on the air.
It's not necessarily a partisan profession. Many media buyers learned their craft not in the political trenches but buying spots for more conventional products, from soft drinks to soup.
Brown's new campaign manager, Clint Reilly, has hired a former Coca-Cola ad buyer to execute the Democratic front-runner's media strategy. And some buyers admit that, although it's nice when their own political leanings match those of a client, ideological agreement is not essential to get the job done.
Still, like other political consultants, media experts quickly become identified with one party or the other. David Bienstock, who owns Target Enterprises, only works for Republican candidates. Among his clients this year: Gov. Pete Wilson, Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren and George W. Bush, who is seeking the Texas governorship.
"I don't assume I'm just a hired gun who makes his commission win or lose," Bienstock says. "I want to win."
At times, the work can seem tedious, especially when compared to creating a commercial. While ad producers yell "Action!", media strategists debate the subtle advantages of airing an ad "inside" a program instead of at the end. They ponder "pod-positioning" (where, within a block of ads, a spot appears) and "heavy click time" (the moments when most viewers reach for their remote controls).
"It's not sexy--you've got to sit around in rooms (staring at) computer printouts," said Nelson, the Orange County consultant who has advised several California initiative campaigns. "But the biggest opportunity to make a difference in the campaign is there, because that's where you spend all the money."
Stanley Kay of Advanced Media Service Inc. says the most fundamental premise for media strategists is: "Use a rifle instead of a shotgun."
Long before an ad is aired, a campaign must decide precisely which voters it needs to reach. Just as it is worthless to reach people who don't vote, many experts believe it is folly to try to change people's minds. The better the advertising is targeted, the more successfully it zeros in on voters who are likely to be receptive.
Wolf, the Target Enterprises media director, offers an obvious example from the Wilson account. Although declining to discuss Wilson's overall media strategy, she says there is one block of programming she won't even consider buying: a political talk show on Sacramento's KCRA-TV that is hosted by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (a Democrat who has often butted heads with the Republican governor).
Nelson, the Orange County consultant, offers another example.
"If you are a hostile bombastic older male (candidate), you probably shouldn't spend a lot of your time buying 'Murphy Brown' TV commercials," he said. "You'll be paying to advertise to a group of people who whenever they see you will remember how much they dislike you."
Timing is everything, says Jean Brooks, senior vice president at Western International Media, which is buying ad time for Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi's gubernatorial campaign.
"It doesn't do any good to reach someone in January, 1994, if they don't care about who they're going to be voting for," Brooks said. "If you reach someone five times in January and one time the day before Election Day, that one time is probably money better spent."
The best timetable, of course, is to start early and repeat often. But most campaigns cannot afford such extravagance, even with the most aggressive fund raising. Margolis recalls that when he worked for Brown, he would attend fund-raisers to let donors know just how expensive ads can be.
"I'd say, 'One 30-second ad, just in L.A., one time, can cost more than $30,000,' " he said, recalling how he would hold up a schedule to show how often Brown needed to be on the air. "I'd say, 'I need people here to buy one "Good Morning America" spot. You can buy it on June 1. It will be your spot.' "
Budget-conscious candidates try to "pulse" their media on and off throughout the campaign, while keeping a reserve of cash to finance a big push at the end. Then they must decide where, exactly, to make that final assault--on television, radio or both.
The two broadcast media work differently, depending where in California they are used. In Los Angeles, for example, where commute times tend to be longer, many media gurus say radio is a wise choice. Here, a campaign may well reach as many women voters on a "light" radio station as on a top-rated TV show like "Northern Exposure"--but for a fraction of the cost.
Still, most statewide campaigns end up on television, where the visual images are believed to "burn in" better, so as to resonate in voters' minds.
Simple math dictates that the cheaper the time period, the more often a campaign can afford to repeat an ad. And given the immense competition for a voter's attention, the frequency is important. Media experts agree that on average, a voter needs to see a spot at least four times before its message sinks in.
"There's cable, the ability to channel surf, VCRs--all that stuff makes it harder for us to get through without getting whacked," said Margolis. "Right in the middle of the ad, maybe (a voter) just got a ham sandwich, the kid started screaming, the phone rang."
The goal: to rise above the distractions (not the least of which are other ads--for commercial products as well as other candidates) and to achieve "top-of-mind awareness." It is no small feat, said Hank Sheinkopf, to do all that without alienating the viewer.
"Politics is not something that everybody needs. You need a car or something to drink. But you don't need what we have to sell," said Sheinkopf, a New York-based media consultant who has advised many California campaigns. "We go into (voters') living rooms. We're not invited. They invited Mike Wallace and the team into their living rooms, not us. That's why repetition is key."
Over the next several weeks, buyers will work overtime placing ads, making sure what they've bought gets delivered and keeping a close eye on the competition. Strategists will haggle with broadcasters over the so-called "political protection period" (the 45-day countdown to the primary election that began Saturday).
During this window, federal law requires stations to charge federal candidates their lowest rates. (Most stations extend the courtesy to statewide and local candidates as well). Moreover, stations must try to provide rival candidates with equal access to the rating points they desire. And here's where the quibbling begins: when the most popular shows sell out, arguments inevitably ensue.
"I've said (to a TV station), 'Look, it is not equivalent to offer us 'America's Most Wanted' when you sold 'Primetime Live' to (our rival)," Margolis said. "One has trailer park residents who aren't ever going to vote and the other has high-information voters. Maybe (the station) is giving us the same number of bodies, but they're not the same bodies."
As the candidates scramble, as the strategists bicker, one thing is certain. "The closer you get to June, you're going to see seven stations brought to you by the political arena," warns Riedl of KABC-TV. "You're going to see so many political spots, you're going to say, 'Enough already!' "
Once they decide which voters to target, political media buyers seek to acquire two things for their clients: reach and frequency. Reach is how many people see a campaign ad. Frequency is how many times they see it. And especially in a state as big as California, where television spots are as close as many voters get to their candidates, winning requires both. So, what to buy? Below, a few tips.
Considered one of the best shows for reaching lots of people in one hit. Ratings are high among adults, both men and women. Moreover, viewers who tune in to magazine shows and other news programs tend to be educated and well-informed--the kind of people who pay attention early, get involved and vote. The downside: expense.
Buyers believe that "Murphy Brown," with its liberal-minded heroine, tends to attract Democrats and women. If a candidate wants to reach Republican men, they say, he or she would get a bigger bang for the buck buying "Monday Night Football."
Buying daytime programming is shrewd if a candidate wants to court older viewers, especially women. Many candidates want to do just that, since older people are more likely to vote than younger ones. Some candidates will craft ads specifically to air during the day--perhaps stressing issues that are important to seniors citizens. Or they may run 60-second spots, which are prohibitively expensive at other times of day.
Nestled between local news shows and prime time, a program like this is considered a great bargain. Sure, its draws only half the rating points of "60 Minutes"--but at one-eighth the cost. Media experts believe a viewer must see a campaign spot four times before its message "burns in," creating so-called "top-of-mind awareness." This show, like "Wheel of Fortune," makes repetition affordable.
Despite great ratings, this show's high price makes it unpopular with political ad buyers. Viewers tend to be younger, meaning they are less likely to vote. Since the goal is not to persuade people to vote, but to reach those who always vote and win them over, programs like this--or "Beverly Hills 90210"--are often seen as a waste of money. But late in the campaign, when the airwaves get crowded, ads may well show up here.
Note: Prices are estimates for one 30-second ad, airing one time in the Los Angeles market.