Thursday Night Football is Back. Are You Ready for Some … Campaign Ads?
The NFL season kicks off tomorrow night with the Detroit Lions and the Kansas City Chiefs battling it out at Arrowhead Stadium. But that won’t be the only season that launches tomorrow night. The matchup also will premiere the 2024 general election ad season since incumbent President Joe Biden’s campaign announced this week that it will air a 30-second ad in the battleground states of Michigan, Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Iowa.
The Biden campaign “Got to Work” ad, which is available on YouTube now if you don’t live in a battleground state or can’t wait until tomorrow to view it, provides a broad overview of President Biden’s accomplishments, particularly when it comes to the economy and energy prices. It is part of a $25 million, three-month ad blitz.
How does the size and scope of this reelection buy compare to previous years and just what can we expect this election season in terms of campaign ad spending?
We’ll answer those questions this week, but first let’s examine who already is in the campaign ad spending game.
GOP candidates have been spending for months
According to AXIOS, the Biden campaign is not the only one that already has launched significant ad buys. After all, there is a Republican presidential primary going on!
Indeed, just this morning, NBC News noted that, by the end of August, Republican candidates had already spent roughly $80.5 million on TV and radio ads. At this point in the 2019 open presidential primary for the Democratic nomination, candidates vying for that party’s nomination had spent only $15.1 million on TV and radio ads. That means primary election ads spending already has quintupled from four years ago.
Spending from 2015 to 2019 did not increase nearly as much. By August 2015 in the open GOP primary for president, candidates had spent just over $13 million, not much less than the Democrats’ 2020 spending of $15.1 billion.
Republicans have added to their already-eye popping August tally significantly in the last few days. NBC News reported, “The Republican presidential nominating fight just eclipsed $100 million in ad spending, as the GOP field burns money at a historic rate.” Specifically, spending is now up to $102 million for Republicans.
NBC News said the Trump campaign machine has dominated the airwaves, but other candidates are certainly spending quite a lot. AXIOS noted the Trump-allied MAGA Inc. PAC has spent and reserved $22.8 million in ads so far, but Sen. Tim Scott's PAC, Trust in Mission, topped that number. That PAC has booked $37 million in ads.
Additionally, according to NBC News, Never Back Down, the super PAC supporting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, has spent more than $6 million on national television ads. No other group or candidate has spent more than $2 million on national TV ads this cycle. Stand for America Fund Inc., which is supporting former South Carolina Gov. Haley, has spent $2.9 million in the early voting state of Iowa while and Trump's MAGA Inc. has spent just $2.2 million there.
The Biden campaign has some catching up to do — but that does not mean that it won’t break records this year.
Campaign ad spending: Where we’ve been
While the economic impact of President Biden’s ad spending might not match the economic impact of the Taylor Swift ($4.3 billion) and Beyonce ($2.1 billion) tours, it could surpass Barbie’s total box office haul ($1 billion and growing by the day).
We know that because presidential campaign ad spending has been growing exponentially for the last generation.
During the general election in 2000 between then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) and then-sitting Vice President Al Gore (D), the two campaigns plus their national party committees (the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee) spent less than $150 million on general election television ads. That race, according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice, was the first race where the parties’ committee spending more ($79.9 million) than the candidates’ campaigns ($67.1 million). In the 1996 race between incumbent President Bill Clinton (D) and then. Sen. Bob Dole (R), the party campaign committees spent just $48.8 million on TV ads while the campaigns themselves doled out $67.3 million.
Total ad spending during the 2000 general election, including radio ads, was around $200 million.
That number nearly tripled four years later. According to an Associated Press report at the time, between March 2004 and November 2024, then-Sen. John Kerry’s (D) campaigns, allies, PACs, and the Democratic Party “poured about $250 million into TV and radio ads compared with about $240 million for Bush and the Republican National Committee.” About $110 million of the $590 million total was spent by outside groups (neither candidates’ campaign committees nor the national party organizations).
It would take another dozen years for political ad spending during the general election to increase so significantly, but by 2016, it had more than doubled again. In 2016, the two presidential candidates spent nearly $761 million on ads during the general election and by 2020, general election presidential ads totaled more than $1 billion.
Of course, the White House general election is not the only race that generates significant ad buys. According to an article published in Forbes in December 2020, during the 2019-2020 election cycle, “total political advertising spending reached $8.5 billion across TV, radio and digital media.” That number was 108 percent more than total ad spending in 2017-2018, which was a record at that time and translated into 9.3 million TV ads alone.
Campaign ad spending: Where we’re going
A sum of $8.5 billion may seem quaint compared to what local, state, U.S. House and Senate, and presidential candidates are expected to spend between now and November 2024.
According to Ad Age, political candidates could dole out as much at $11 billion or more on advertisements as they try to gain office in 2024.
In keeping with the times, campaigns are shifting where they spend their advertising dollars. In fact, an unnamed Biden campaign source told AXIOS that, compared to 2020, the 2024 advertising will lean much more heavily on digital and streaming, especially YouTube.
That move is not only due to consumers’ cable cutting. “Unlike traditional TV ads, digital and streaming ads can be more narrowly targeted,” AXIOS said. MediaVillage agreed. It argued, “Streaming platforms offer campaigns advanced targeting, ensuring their messages reach specific demographics and interest groups with attribution and optimization not possible in TV. This efficiency not only makes political ad spend on streaming more attractive but also further legitimizes streaming platforms as primary content distributors.”
In other words: don’t think you can escape the ad onslaught by only tuning in to Hulu.
Like streaming, artificial intelligence (AI) also could have an impact on political ads, including making them more affordable to make. As a Wall Street Journal article reported this past June, “The speed at which AI can generate content is seen as a game changer. Rather than having to rely on consultants and digital experts, AI is a far cheaper means through which campaigns can respond to events in real time.”
That ease will come with increased scrutiny from Washington lawmakers and regulators, however. Indeed, the Federal Election Commission already has begun a process to provide oversight of fake AI-generated images used in campaign ads. Democrats in the House and Senate also have introduced legislation that would require a disclaimer on political ads that use images or video generated by AI.
Do campaign ads even work?
All the money, technology, and regulatory oversight that goes into campaign ads begs the question: do these missives even work?
It depends on which electoral office you are asking about.
Political scientists John Sides, Lynn Vavreck, and Christopher Warshaw have warned, “There are significant limitations to what we know about the effects of televised campaign advertising on election outcomes.”
Vavreck told New Republic Staff Writer Walter Shapiro that, at least when it comes to presidential races, it “is impossible to find evidence that any single spot — no matter how emotionally powerful — made a measurable difference in voter sentiment.” Volume matters more than anything, Vavreck said. (Hence, perhaps, the proliferation of spending.)
However, TV, radio, streaming, and digital ads may make more of a difference in more localized races, Vavreck conceded. As Shapiro notes, Vavreck and her fellow researchers examined the potency of TV ads from 2000 to 2018. Their conclusion: “Despite increasing partisanship in the electorate, there are still persuadable voters that respond to television advertising — especially in down-ballot elections, where voters have less information about candidates.”
Still, unless it is a small scale race where the two candidates are already close in the polls, Vavreck concluded, “The effects of advertising are small and go away quickly.”
So, tomorrow night: maybe just focus on the football?