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Understanding Political Media Buying

By Stephen D. Hull


For political commercials to be an effective they must be seen by the voter. The goal is to reach a defined target audience in the most efficient and economical way possible. Today TV, especially Cable TV should be a major part of the overall advertising strategy for the campaign.


Developing a Media Plan


Buying electronic media is based on gross rating points (GRP's) and the cost paid to buy a rating point. GRP's, are the sum total of the ratings achieved for a media schedule and provides an estimate of the exposure of the target audience to the campaign's advertising. A good general rule of thumb is 100 GRP's means the average TV viewer will see a commercial once, so 500 GRP's should expose an average viewer five times to the commercial. Since this is a conceptual average, a heavy viewer might see the commercial more and a light viewer may see the spot less.

The average target voter should see a commercial at least five to seven times in a week for it to have the potential to influence the voting decision, so 500 to 700 GRP's is considered a substantial buy for one week.


Do not let the points jargon confuse you.  The bottom line is reach and frequency.  A media buyer must balance factors, reach, or how many different viewers were exposed to the advertising message. When the same audience member sees the ad more than once, then the message is building frequency, or repetition. Frequency indicates the number of times the viewer is exposed to the spot. 


Timing of Media Buy


Unless Presidential, few campaigns can not afford to run television and radio continuously through Election Day.  You must maximize the impact of advertising by creating a media plan that will take advantage of the voters' decision-making processes. In the 45 days preceding a primary and the 60 days before a general election, special regulations mandate that stations offer political candidates "the lowest unit charge of the station for the same class and amount of time for the same period." This federal regulation is known as lowest unit rate, or LUR, and requires that all candidates be charged the lowest rate available for advertisers on the station.


The bottom line here is, most people do not pay attention to commercials until 14 days from the election, but it is imperative to hire a professional who can help develop a strategic media but that will coincide with the goals of the campaign.  Also unexpected rebuttals may need to be inserted and a responsive team of media planners needs to be considered.


Targeting Audiences


Media buying requires a clearly defined target audience to be reached by the advertising message. Once a target audience is defined, the media plan should be capable of maximizing contact with these key groups through cost-efficient buying.


One effective means of buying media to reach a target audience is by demographics. The target audience is usually defined in demographic terms by the campaign's pollster.  Undecided voters are always a prime target audience for paid advertising.  Cable TV today is one of the most effective ways to micro target TV media.  Still this is not as simple thing, you still need a trained professional political buyer to develop the tactics for implementing a placement schedule for Cable TV.


The bottom line here is, get someone who knows what they are doing politically.  Your media buyer that is placing general ads is not what you want.


The Electronic Media Mix




Television is the number one way for delivering a campaign's advertising message. On a cost per point basis, Broadcast TV is not as effective in reaching tightly defined targeted markets.

TV is divided into sections that are called dayparts. Advertising time is placed in programs that fall into these dayparts. The following is an overview of television station dayparts, Early AM, Day, Early fringe, Early News, Access, Prime, Late news, Local news, Late fringe.




Radio airtime is relatively inexpensive and employs formats, or types of programming, which are designed to attract a narrower audience than is possible with television.  Except with Cable TV, Cable TV is also effective in targeting narrow audience as well.

Radio is also divided into sections that are called dayparts. Advertising time is placed in dayparts. The following is an overview of radio station dayparts: AM Drive, Midday, PM Drive.


Cable Television


Cable TV is an excellent way to reach a tightly defined target market.  Much of the programming and content is designed to attract the special interests of a specific or narrowly defined groups, this allows campaign to efficiently reach a target audience.


The bottom line here is hiring a professional that knows the markets from a political perspective.  This will insure you are in the right location and at the right time.


Commercial Formats


The 30-second spot is the workhorse for TV campaign advertising.  60 second spots are usally the format for radio.


The bottom line here is, make sure you hire a political media expert.  30 or 60 seconds that really does not matter, the content and the message is what counts.



Stephen D. Hull, owner of Political Communications, LLC is
an accomplished journalist, television producer
and public affairs specialist with over 30 years
in the industry.  Steve has worked on over
170 campaigns in the last 10 years.   He can be reached at 

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