President Obama is counting on Kim Kardashian to help get his voters to the polls this fall, while Mitt Romney is betting heavily on Drew Carey and his audience on “The Price Is Right.”
In an age of specialized cable-TV networks and minutely targeted messages, where every viewer’s mouse click or channel change leaves a digital footprint that marketers can track, political consultants and ad sales representatives have learned that it is not how many people you reach, it’s who those people are — and what those people like to watch.
To an unprecedented degree, an analysis by The Washington Times has found, both presidential campaigns this year are tailoring their messages and their ad buys to specific audiences through analysis about which television programs are likely to reach their supporters and motivate them to get to the polls.
The result: a fascinating collision of pop culture and political strategy. Shows featuring singing and dancing, such as Fox’s “Glee,” are favored by Democrats, and commercial time during NASCAR racing is more likely to reflect Republican views, an exhaustive review of recent broadcasting disclosures showed.
Venerable game shows, while barely registering as blips in modern pop culture, remain among the top destinations for political ads because of their largely older base of viewers who are likely to go to the polls. “The Price Is Right” is second among all TV shows for Romney ads and third for spots for Mr. Obama. “Jeopardy,” another long-running warhorse of the game-show genre, ranks fourth among all political advertisers.
The sophisticated targeting of the 2012 campaign exposed what was a dirty little secret of bygone TV ad wars. In the past, competing campaigns would release a deluge of political ads in the campaign’s closing days on many of the same shows, with the money spent producing more or less a stalemate. With both campaigns reaching the same viewers on the same shows roughly the same number of times, the net benefit for either side was close to zero.
Republicans are at an extreme disadvantage when it comes to television advertising because Democrats watch more TV. In fact, every single genre of programming has a Democratic-leaning audience, with sports coming the closest to a partisan balance.
As a result, only one in five political ads during baseball games is for a Democratic candidate, while nearly every political ad during the adult cartoon series “Family Guy” is for a Democrat, according to The Times’ analysis, which included the major broadcast networks in the top 50 markets.
Republicans have tried to overcome the viewership gap by advertising more in general. More important, though, shows with the closest balance of Republican and Democratic viewers, such as sports and documentaries, have audiences that are far more inclined to vote.
“It’s not just the partisanship of the viewers of that program, but [whether] the viewers of this program are likely to vote. You’ve got a really Democratic audience for reality-dating programs, but they’re not all that likely to vote because they’re young,” said Travis N. Ridout, a political science professor at Washington State University.
In the new microtargeted advertising world, two types of ads are aired to distinct audiences: those designed to persuade the small slice of voters who are truly undecided, and those that cater to an audience that sympathizes with a given party but rarely bothers to go to the polls.
Democrats are advertising during daytime shows watched by high numbers of unemployed people, including those who rely on welfare and other social services supported by that party, records suggest.
“What shows do the unemployed watch? If you want to stereotype, it’s whatever’s on at 3 a.m., or ‘Jerry Springer’ or ‘Maury Povich,’” said Tim Kay of NCC Media, a sales and research company for the cable-TV industry.
All “Jerry Springer” ads have been for Democrats, and just a quarter of those aired on Mr. Povich’s show have been from Republicans. Mr. Obama has advertised heavily on such shows, which also include courtroom reality shows such as “Judge Judy” and those whose viewers include large numbers of black voters. Those viewers already support Mr. Obama, but he needs to excite them enough to cast a ballot.
“It’s a cheap trick,” Mr. Kay said, but he added that in many states, people are required to register to vote well before Election Day.
Republicans have increasingly targeted Hispanics by advertising during Spanish-language soap operas, ever since George W. Bush gained his largest advertising advantage over Al Gore during the programs in 2000. Mr. Romney last week premiered a Spanish-language ad titled “Juntos,” meaning “together.”
Treasure in trash TV
The advertising strategies raise the question of who is counting on the votes of, well, airheads to win them high office.
“It looks like both parties are looking at shows like ‘The Bachelor,’ ‘Bachelor Pad.’ They’ll take your vote whether you’re dumb or smart — and if you’re dumb, you’re likely more manipulable,” Mr. Kay said.
Consider “Maury,” hosted by Maury Povich, where shows have featured the likes of women who do not know who their children’s fathers are and girlfriends revealing to their long-term partners that they are transsexual. As politicians spout moral platitudes and make the case that they are as American as apple pie, “Maury” is a popular destination for ads, with the Obama super PAC Priorities USA making 10 separate buys.
In fact, the more lowbrow the show, the better: “People who are low political information can be more persuadable,” Mr. Kay said. “If you get someone that’s watching ‘[Keeping Up With] the Kardashians,’ and they’re a swing voter, and see one or two ads,” that could make the difference because that ad may represent a large portion of the political information they digest.
Some shows seem to have built-in ideological audiences. “Shark Tank,” a reality program about entrepreneurship, has only 18 percent Democratic ads, and the law-and-order favorite “Cops” is heavily Republican.
Other television programs offer candidates a chance to reach a heavily female viewership — and Democrats take them up on that offer much more often. “Grey’s Anatomy” ads skew heavily blue state, while a few Republicans did make straightforward overtures to women by advertising during the talk show of Ellen DeGeneres. Republicans such as former Rep. Heather Wilson, a Senate candidate in New Mexico, have targeted younger women through Hollywood gossip shows, including “Entertainment Tonight.”
The presence of sports as the main way of reaching Republicans puts them at a disadvantage in reaching women.
Relatively inexpensive ads during daytime soap operas watched by stay-at-home moms are abundant, and are used primarily by Democrats, who traditionally fare better with women. More than 80 percent of political spots during “The Young and the Restless,” the long-running soap opera, touted liberal candidates and causes.
The content of shows also can give politicians insight into how to exploit wedge issues. Medical dramas include plenty of Republican viewers, but they may be more likely to be less religious and to buck the party’s staunch pro-life platform, Mr. Ridout said.
In Michigan, for example, a group backing a referendum seeking taxpayer funding for home doctors’ visits to the elderly has advertised during “Dr. Oz” and “Private Practice.”
• See a full breakdown of political ads by television show exclusively at washingtontimes.com/adwars/shows.