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Political Ads Target TV, But Not Everyone Is Tuning In

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If you watched the Emmy Awards recently, you may have seen an ad inviting viewers to "fight" for President Obama's jobs plan.

"The next election is 14 months away," Obama says in the ad. "And the people who sent us here ... they don't have the luxury of waiting 14 months."

Although the election is more than a year away, it's not keeping political commercials off of our TV screens. Yet, according to a new survey, the audience for those ads is shrinking.

Young People Aren't Watching Live TV

The ad for Obama's jobs program wasn't from the Obama re-election campaign; it was from the Democratic National Committee.

Brad Woodhouse, the DNC's communications director, says it's been running in selected markets.

"We're obviously in markets in Ohio where Speaker John Boehner hails from," he says. "We're in markets in Virginia where the House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is from. And then we're in key states, so it's a mix."

The DNC hasn't had the airwaves to itself. Crossroads GPS, an independent conservative organization, ran a spot over the summer that says: "America's economy is hanging by a thread. ... It's time to take away President Obama's blank check."

So advocacy organizations are getting on the air early in this campaign season. But are those ads reaching the people who count? Republican pollster Neil Newhouse of Public Opinion Strategies and Democratic pollster Thomas Eldon of SEA Polling surveyed likely voters about their TV viewing habits.

"The No. 1 finding in the survey, which really shocked me, is that 31 percent of voters we talked to said they had not watched live TV in the past week," Newhouse says.

Live in this case doesn't mean a live event, like a baseball game — it means watching a TV program when a channel or network airs it. So if about a third of TV viewers only watched recorded programming in the previous week, there's no reason to assume they sat through the commercials. That's what the fast-forward button is for.

"You do a little deeper dive in the data, and there's not a gender difference, there's not a partisan difference — Republicans vs. Democrats — not really an educational difference," Newhouse says. "Where there's a real difference is a generation difference. The generation gap is stark and wide."

Younger people, says Newhouse, are much less likely to watch TV in real time — or even to watch television on a television. They may find computers or smartphones more convenient.

"People live very complex lives with media coming to them from many sources, and the big take-away here is that advertisers need to communicate in any way they can to the audience that matters to them," says Matt Rosenberg, vice president of Internet marketing company SAY Media, one of the groups that commissioned the poll.

One case in point: Twitter announced last week that it will begin to carry political ads.

The Power Of Media

But two-thirds of people, even in this latest poll, still watch TV in real time — sometimes, anyway.

Kenneth Goldstein, head of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, known as CMAG, says a commercial doesn't even have to air widely for it to have a big impact.

"It is one of the chief things that reporters love to cover, which is the television ad war," Goldstein says. "So you get an added buzz after that. The swift boat ad is a terrific example of that."

That was the infamous ad campaign that aired in 2004 during the race between then-President Bush and Sen. John Kerry, a decorated war veteran. In the ad, other Vietnam veterans claimed that Kerry had exaggerated or even lied about his exploits during the war.

"The swift boat ad was aired in a handful of really, really small markets, where it generated the buzz," Goldstein says. "Where people were exposed to it was the massive coverage that the media gave to it."

The media also gave massive coverage to the extensive use of the Internet by the Obama campaign in 2008. But that had a different purpose than advertising, Goldstein says.

"Basically they used the Internet as an organizational tool and as a way to raise lots of money," he says. "And you know what they did with that money? They spent it on television."

So don't expect any letup in the number of political ads bombarding your TV screen in the coming year. Just expect your computer and smartphone screens to be bombarded, too.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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