Issue ads turn up the heat

“Does advocacy advertising really work?” is a question I hear on a pretty regular basis from clients, potential clients and interested observers. The Annenberg Public Policy Center came up with a compelling answer in a report released yesterday.

“Does advocacy advertising really work?” is a question I hear on a pretty regular basis from clients, potential clients and interested observers. The Annenberg Public Policy Center came up with a compelling answer in a report released yesterday.

If it doesn’t work, business and policy groups wasted more than $404 million during the 108th Congress. That is Annenberg’s estimate of the total advertising spending designed to influence legislation in the last session of Congress.

And it should come as no surprise that the side spending the most money generally got its way.

Issue advertising works for several reasons.

For one, no matter how much time congressional or administration staff spends on detailed research papers and heavily annotated studies, the general environment in which issues are discussed is greatly influenced by the media. Good paid advertising can have a tremendous impact on that environment.

I like to think my firm does very good advertising, and we’ve received some powerful endorsements of that view. A secretary of state once said in a news conference that the administration had changed its position “because of the advertising.” A vice president quoted one of our theme lines as he left for an international conference. And my personal favorite was listening to President Clinton change his description of “healthcare cooperatives” to “mandatory purchasing alliances” after listening to Harry and Louise use the more negative description in a year of television commercials.

The bottom line is that when you pay for advertising space or time, you get to tell your side of the story when you like, where you like and as often as you like. No reporter is going to do that for you.

Another reason advocacy advertising works is that it can motivate constituents to action. With the evolution of the Internet, the proliferation of blogs and the power of e-mail, groups have the ability to turn messages into action.

Decades ago, Illinois Republican Sen. Everett Dirksen said about the grassroots, “When I feel the heat, I see the light.” With the tools now available to advocacy groups, that observation is even more powerful.

An effective campaign using print and broadcast advertising combined with Internet and grassroots activity back home can have a powerful impact on the views of elected officials. While they may not read The Hill back in Spokane, they do check The Spokesman-Review for weather, sports and local news. If folks there are seeing the same messages staff is here, and if they make phone calls and send e-mails, opinions start to change.

The Annenberg study is filled with fascinating details about the $404 million spent to influence public policy. One of the most interesting is that a lot of that money is wasted. Nearly 70 percent of advertisers ran five or fewer ads, and 37 percent ran only one.

I can’t fathom the logic of decisions like that. Maybe an influential CEO called the head of a trade associate with a “we have to run an ad” demand, or a communications person decided “everyone is doing it, so should we” or maybe a lot of folks just need a course in Advertising 101.

Whatever the reason, there are a lot of decisionmakers out there who don’t understand one of advertising’s most fundamental rules — frequency. Our rule of thumb is that the people in your audience need to be exposed to a message about five times before they get it. If I understand the Annenberg results, nearly three-quarters of those advertising had virtually no impact on their target audience.

It is no surprise that 1 percent of organizations bought 57 percent of the advertising. Those are folks who understand what they are doing and have the courage to hammer their message home.

Most of those ads had to do with business regulation, healthcare and energy/environment issues. Those will also be front-burner issues in this legislative cycle, and you can expect to see and hear a lot about them in the months ahead.

One surprising statistic is that six in 10 of the top issue-advertising spenders spend more on advertising than on reported lobbying. That finding marks a dramatic shift in the way policy is made in Washington.

The Annenberg study is well worth reading. It clearly makes the case that messages that matter are increasingly going to be bought and paid for. With the rise of groups such as MoveOn.org that can raise the money to match corporate advertising, that can result in a healthy, diverse public debate.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy. E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com