The merits of campaign ads in newspapers

If I have learned anything in 20-plus years of campaigning, it’s that you’ll incur the contempt of other consultants if you suggest that a campaign advertise in the newspapers. Even if you’re armed with data supporting the fact that likely voters are newspaper readers, you’ll be hit with complaints about newspaper ad costs and inefficiencies in reaching the targeted electorate.

It’s very sad, really. If there is a reason I developed an interest in politics and became a pollster, it’s because of newspapers. When I was growing up, our household always subscribed to at least two daily newspapers, and we read them. My mother also taught me the joy of buying the local daily or weekly when traveling. There’s no better way to get to know a community quickly than reading the local paper. My first mentor in this business, Lance Tarrance, always bought the local rag the night before a poll presentation and sprinkled things he’d learned into the discussion the next day. It gave our firm’s observations a welcome local flavor.

In the past I have received packages — obviously mailed to all political consultants by a newspaper consortium — containing information designed to induce campaign operatives to think more kindly of newspapers when doling out campaign dollars. The material was always well-documented and attractively presented, but I doubt it did a bit of good. Campaigners — particularly media consultants who prefer broadcast advertising — have closed the door on any consideration of newspapers as a channel of communication they’ll pay for.

During the 2008 campaigns, a newspaper agency asked me to survey on advertising for initiative campaigns. In most states, initiatives are unburdened by campaign finance restrictions and can and will spend a lot of money. Sometimes broadcast time is sold out, particularly in a presidential election year, so the media planners add newspapers. My client wanted a slice of that growing pie. We did recall tests of newspaper ads and TV ads in the same week of the campaign. The newspaper ads held their own and were recalled by some likely voters who couldn’t recall any TV ads. Even ersatz plastic newspaper wrappers with an imprinted message were recalled. But I doubt that most consultants will be persuaded to use newspapers next time.

We try and keep the torch lit, however, continuing to ask in surveys where voters get most of their state and local news. In the Iowa survey, most voters, 31 percent, say they get their news from local TV. But 24 percent said a daily newspaper was their top source and 7 percent cited weekly newspapers. So by combining the two print categories, we equal TV newscasts. Cable TV was mentioned by 19 percent and radio and the Internet each garnered 9 percent.

Weekly newspapers are particularly overlooked by professionals. Few are journalistically distinguished and most are poorly designed, but they do attract eyeballs. Our research has shown that many readers spend more time with local weeklies than the big dailies. One trick I have for boosting the name ID of members of Congress or state legislators is to get into the weeklies more often. Show me a candidate who has generated a good-sized stack of earned media news clips in his or her district’s weeklies and I’ll show you a candidate with strong favorable name ID. Advertising in the weeklies should be a natural follow-on to that, but seldom is.

I’m sorry, I can’t imagine politics without newspapers. Campaigns should give newspapers their due.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.