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The times they are a changin'

Political advertising is based on a principle well known to con artists worldwide: bait and switch. Despite great work by media consultants, nobody wants to watch a political ad. They turn on their televisions to watch “CSI” or “24” (the bait) and we pull a switch, giving them a political ad instead. By 2008, if not before, technology is likely to render that model obsolete.

Political advertising is based on a principle well known to con artists worldwide: bait and switch. Despite great work by media consultants, nobody wants to watch a political ad. They turn on their televisions to watch “CSI” or “24” (the bait) and we pull a switch, giving them a political ad instead.
By 2008, if not before, technology is likely to render that model obsolete.

Anyone who has ever sat through a focus group or looked at a poll knows people dislike political ads. Last year, only 24 percent of Ohio voters thought the ads they saw were helpful and just 24 percent thought they were accurate.

But to borrow Listerine’s line, people may hate ’em, but they use them. While academics are just beginning to find evidence that spots matter, practitioners have known that for 50 years. Candidates who were unknown asterisks last month lead in the polls this month. Last week, no one knew he voted for it before he voted against. This week, everyone does. While consultants tend to overrate the value of every campaign technique, including ads, there is no doubt 30-second spots can be effective.

However, their impact has already begun to wane. Twenty years ago, we said it took 500 points (a measure of an advertisement’s exposure) to get a message across. Generating the same impact today requires 1,200 points or more. Two technological and one social development have combined to eat away at the effectiveness of TV spots.

First, the advent of cable and satellite has given people 30 times and more the number of choices they had, some which have no advertising at all.

A second culprit is the remote control. More than 60 percent of Americans watch TV with a remote control in hand, flipping the channel when an ad comes on. (One can only imagine that the number is even greater when a political ads flickers across the screen.)

Those two technological trends have combined with our national penchant for multitasking to limit ad audiences. There was a time when people sat down in front of a television and watched. Today we talk on the phone, make dinner, eat it and do so many other things while the TV drones on in the background.

But these changes are nothing compared to the “big one” about to hit. Digital video recorders (DVRs), such as TiVo, are taking off and will revolutionize advertising. Indeed, one of the chief reasons people buy DVRs is to skip commercials.

Skip they do. Studies estimate that DVR owners spend about 60 percent of their time watching recorded programs and skip an astounding 92 percent of ads. Thirty percent of DVR owners watch no ads at all. Those who do tend to focus on promos for movies and future programming, not politics.

That is not a huge problem today; only about 5 percent of households now have DVRs. But the phenomenon is growing exponentially. Estimates suggest that more than 40 percent of Americans will have this technology in four years.

Radio is not immune from these technological changes. Today, 4 million people subscribe to commercial-free satellite radio, such as XM or Sirius. Cable TV took 13 years to build that subscriber base. Satellite radio did it in just four. In the next four years, the number of people listening to radio with no commercials could jump to nearly 40 million.

Empowered viewers can elude bait and switch. They can choose to watch “CSI” or “Wheel of Fortune” with no ads at all. Many will only see the political ads they want to watch, while avoiding those we want them to see.

Next week: The responses of commercial advertisers to these changes and their relevance to politics.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last year.