Groups with a political agenda still buying spots on TV

It’s been only about a month since the noise of the election ended, but the campaigns have left an echo. And for TV stations, it sounds like ka-ching!

Political ads, which saturated the swing states in unprecedented fashion, have returned to the airwaves over the past week. They are not nearly as frequent, not nearly as negative (in fact, they’re largely positive) and tied to issues rather than candidates — and one has even remembered to feature a Hollywood celeb.

Morgan Freeman, who in October was enlisted by the Obama campaign to narrate an uplifting spot for the president’s re-election, this past week could be heard voicing a different uplifting spot for the Human Rights Campaign, pointing out history-making LGBT victories at the ballot box. “The wind is at our back, but our journey has just begun,” Freeman says in the spot, which in its imagery evokes the famous “Morning in America” ads for Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign in 1984.

Also advertising have been a coalition of labor groups, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the National Education Assn. and the Service Employees Intl. Union, which ran a series of radio and TV ads calling for the protection of funding for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as well as education. Tied to ongoing talks in Washington to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff,” the ads were not just unusual for their timing, but for where they ran: during coverage of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade — and on radio and TV in Colorado, Missouri, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Alaska, mentioning lawmakers by name, and calling for them to stand firm on funding.

Given the lack of any election on the horizon, it’s a bit unconventional for ads to pop up now, coming in what can best be described as the off-off-season for partisan buys, but some see the spots as not necessarily all that unexpected.

“We are in the era of the permanent campaign,” says Elizabeth Wilner, vice president for strategic initiatives at the Campaign Media Analysis Group, the Kantar Media unit that tracks election spending.

Although there may be concerns that the public is satiated on any and all things politics, and therefore prone to tune out, particularly after a relentlessly negative campaign season, Wilner notes that many markets, like New York and California, didn’t see the same onslaught of negativity as did the swing states. She also notes that visually, the new ads look and sound different from the kind of ads people were subjected to for the past seven or eight months.

HRC’s spot, called “Dawn of a New Day for Marriage Equality,” is timed not just to the election victories but to the attention being paid to the Supreme Court’s pending decision on whether to take a case challenging the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8, as well as a series of challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act. A decision from the court on which cases it will take or reject could come by Dec. 3. The HRC spot ran for a week, including placement in major cities during the Sunday morning talkshows.

Wilner says that of importance to an org like HRC is to bring attention to its successes, particularly since Obama’s reelection overshadowed so many other races on Election Day. “They want to strengthen their status as a major political player in Washington, which they have been, but there’s the adage that you are only as good as your most recent victory,” she says. “You have to blow your own horn; no one else is going to do it for you.”

HRC, along with other LGBT groups, also are anxious to lay the groundwork for support in statehouses. Five state legislatures, including Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota and Rhode Island, may be considering same-sex marriage legislation when lawmakers return in January.

Richard Socarides, a New York attorney and Democratic political strategist, noted that before the New York legislature approved marriage equality in 2011, cable and Internet spots featured prominent figures explaining why the issue was important to them.

“They were extremely effective in creating momentum for the message,” says Socarides, who was adviser in the Clinton White House on gay and lesbian issues. “The Morgan Freeman ad takes that to the next level. I think it is a very smart idea. At just the right moment, it can be very helpful.”

Both Freeman’s HRC ad, and the labor-backed spots, called “Jobs Not Cuts,” are upbeat in tone, the latter containing images of working men and women smiling with their families even as the narrator urges continued funding for various programs. That’s something of a contrast to what’s going on in Washington, where a game of brinkmanship is being played out between the White House and Republicans in Congress on who will blink first to offer a compromise in order to avoid taking the nation over the so-called fiscal cliff.

“No rest for the weary,” quips AFSCME’s Chris Fleming, who says there is always a concern of viewer fatigue over political ads, but maintains that inasmuch as the labor-backed spots aren’t negative, they may find resonance.

In the D.C. market, the spots aired in Washington, D.C., during the pre-game show for the Thanksgiving day matchup between the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys, mentioning the senators from Virginia, Mark Warner and James Webb, both Democrats. The idea in naming them and other politicos, Fleming says, is to make sure that, given the unpredictable negotiations in Congress, lawmakers stand firm on preventing cuts to key programs. In other words, labor is watching. Other spots aired during college football, and radio drive time on Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

While the presence of ads during Congress’ lame-duck session is not unprecedented, Wilner says a huge array of interests have stakes in the fiscal cliff, which could include cuts in Social Security, Medicare and pay for government workers.

AFSCME’s spot is what Fleming calls a “six figure opening salvo of a buy.” Other labor groups and businesses figure to escalate their lobbying as well.

So even if the nation does wind up going over that cliff, the TV stations figure to have the impact softened by the contents of their wallets.

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