After tracking an hour of prime time in six swing states, we turned up just 12 political ads. Why? It turns out you're more likely to see ads during syndicated shows like Wheel of Fortune than on network shows.
It's no secret that TV watchers in swing states are getting flooded, bombarded, practically drowned in political ads.
According to data from Kantar Media, as of a week ago, nearly 700,000 political ads had aired throughout the country during the general election campaign. The estimated spending on those ads: $395 million.
In the past few weeks, It's All Politics has been getting periodic updates on the political state of play in five of the biggest battleground states — Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire and Ohio — from reporters participating in our Message Machine project.
We wanted to see just how inundated their televisions were, so we decided to do an (unscientific) case study: All five reporters would watch one hour of prime-time TV and track all the ads they saw in their markets (Denver, Tampa, Des Moines, Manchester and Columbus, respectively). And in the swing state of Virginia, I would track the ads I saw in Alexandria, just outside of Washington, D.C.
All of the reporters gamely agreed to sit through an hour of ABC's Dancing With the Stars for our watch party. I figured a reality show watched by millions in prime time could give us a good indication of the ad downpour.
I was in for a surprise.
Among the six of us, we saw 12 total political ads out of the more than 200 spots we tracked Tuesday night. Sarah McCammon of Iowa Public Radio actually managed to see zero political ads in the hour we picked. That's in a market that saw 15,518 ads between April 25 and Sept. 8 related to the presidential race, according to the ad-analyzing Wesleyan Media Project.
As it turns out, watching a hugely popular national TV show might be a good way to avoid a deluge of political ads. Why?
"I think there's a pretty simple answer," Travis Ridout, a Washington State University professor who co-directs the Wesleyan Media Project, explained by email, "which is that most of the ad time during Dancing With the Stars is reserved for national advertisers (Pepsi, Honda, Wal-Mart) as opposed to local advertisers. Because they are targeting specific voters in specific states, the campaigns buy most of their ads from local TV stations."
So you're more likely to see political ads on syndicated programs like Wheel of Fortune than during network shows, he says.
That helps to explain our final tally: Josh Rogers in New Hampshire saw four political ads (two presidential; two congressional); Kirk Siegler in Colorado saw three (two presidential; one congressional); Scott Finn in Florida and Karen Kasler in Ohio both saw two (all presidential); and I saw a whopping one presidential ad in Virginia.
As Karen put it: "This was supposed to be an 'ad watch party'? It wasn't much of a party here." In contrast, while watching the top-rated local newscast later in the evening, she saw nine political ads in about half an hour.
And that wouldn't surprise Ridout: "Political advertisers especially like airing ads during local news, because people who watch local news tend to be more informed and interested in politics — the same type of people who are likely voters."
So maybe we should try watching then. No matter what, we won't be going another round with Dancing With the Stars.
Scott put his foot down: "I will never, ever watch this show again."