Candidates, super PACs could squeeze out commercial advertisers on TV

Auto, fashion retailers may feel a strain this fall

Political campaigns flush with money are poised to launch a late advertising blitz that could crowd out a significant number of other advertisers, especially in battleground regions.

The expected flood of candidates’ ads, including in Massachusetts and New Hampshire markets, could preempt local broadcast time for commercial advertisers.

Auto companies introducing their 2013 models and retailers promoting fall fashion lines may be among those eclipsed.

Under Federal Communications Commission rules, candidates for president and Congress receive discounted rates and preference for booking time on broadcast stations over commercial advertisers. With record amounts of money in play this year, and limited time available for stations to sell, these preemption regulations will probably kick in during the media endgame even more than usual, campaign operatives and media buyers said.


Blitz Media, a buying agency in Waltham, is among those bracing for the next few weeks. It began warning its clients in the spring that any airtime bought in the weeks leading up to Election Day Nov. 6 would be difficult to guarantee.

“You have to be flexible,’’ said Greg Angland, a senior vice president at Blitz. “It’s a frustrating time of year.’’ At least one advertiser has decided to use radio now and shift to TV ads after the election, he said.

Boston-area auto dealer Ernie Boch Jr. said businesses like his that advertise constantly have learned to deal with the chaos that a contentious election cycle can make of their advertising schedules.

“Every time there’s a big election, it happens,’’ he said, and this year he anticipates less available airtime than usual. Boch said he has learned to push TV stations to compensate him when his ads are bumped, by giving him extra airtime during another week or with spots in prime-time programming.

“It’s a good working relationship,’’ Boch said. “I understand that if I’m paying $200 for an ad and somebody wants to pay $1,000, they’re going to bump me.’’

Karen Agresti, a senior vice president at Boston ad agency Hill Holliday, whose clients include Dunkin’ Donuts and Liberty Mutual insurance, said figuring out how to replace an ad that has been bumped can be challenging.


“The trick about political ads is that the candidates come in last-minute. Every day, they’re spending money,’’ she said.

Many advertisers can’t afford to lose exposure at this time of year because October is when auto dealers need to start promoting new model years, furniture retailers usually see a jump in business, and retailers debut fall fashion lines or prime viewers for the upcoming holiday season. “TV is still one of the most powerful advertising mechanisms out there,’’ Agresti said.

Part of Massachusetts’ ad flurry will come from its marquee Senate race between Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown, both prodigious fund-raisers already saturating the airwaves. One competitive congressional race between US Representative John Tierney and Republican Richard R. Tisei is also making a claim for airtime.

The ads will also come from the presidential candidates, aimed at hotly contested New Hampshire, but with the message seeping over the border into Massachusetts to capture New Hampshire viewers who watch Boston TV. Ads are likely to increase on Boston stations as available time at WMUR-TV in Manchester, N.H., the only major network affiliate in the Granite State, dwindles and campaigns and outside groups still have money to burn.

Outside groups are also fueling the spending spree — although FCC rules allow only candidates, not so-called super PACs, a price break and special access to ad slots. Still, super PACs’ wealth will allow them to claim a significant portion of whatever ad time candidates don’t claim.

Extra funds for ads this year can be traced largely to the creation of super PACs, fund-raising vehicles that sprang up in 2010 and can raise unlimited sums from corporations, labor unions, and individuals. The nine most active super PACs — representing both parties — had at least $70 million still in the bank more than a month ago. They continue to raise funds for advertising, and other ways to promote their favored candidates. Conservative and Republican super PACs have held a clear money advantage throughout the campaign.


With six weeks to go, advertising spending by outside groups in this federal campaign cycle is $403 million,
shattering the $302 million mark set in the 2008 election, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, which monitors campaign contributions and spending. It is also well beyond the $295 million spent in the 2010 midterm elections.

Meanwhile, the candidates themselves also have money to spend on ads — that’s how the bulk of campaign funding is generally used. Obama’s campaign outspent the Romney campaign by about 3 to 1 in August. Last week, the Democratic incumbent’s team spent about $15.5 million on television advertising compared with about $8.6 million by Romney’s team.

Republicans have more cash on hand than Democrats for the presidential stretch run. Romney and allied Republican Party committees entered September with about $168.5 million and Obama and his committees had about $125.1 million, not counting debts, according to a Republican National Committee memo to supporters on Friday.

Under federal rules, commercial broadcasters must provide not only “reasonable access’’ to air time for all candidates for federal office, but “equal opportunity’’ to buy spots if an opponent has bought time at the station. Cable channels are not required to sell political ads unless they have sold time to one candidate. In that case, they must provide equal time to the opponent. Another reason viewers will be blitzed: any surplus money raised by PACs and federal candidates cannot be used after Election Day — unless its for a future campaign.

“There’s no reward for having the most money on hand after the election,’’ said WMUR general manager Jeff Bartlett.

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