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TV Ad Avalanche

First Posted: 10/19/10 06:59 PM ET Updated: 05/25/11 07:05 PM ET

Ad Avalanche

The most expensive, nasty and weird election season in recent years -- a campaign of witches, grizzlies and an Aqua Buddha -- is reaching its advertising crescendo in an appropriate place: Las Vegas. According to experts who monitor such things, the television stations in The Hangover City on last Friday broadcast 1,200 TV ads for, against and about the candidates in the Nevada Senate race.

"That's got to be a new national all-time record," said Evan Tracey of CMAC, an advertising-monitoring company in Washington. "We're talking about 36,000 seconds of political spots -- ten hours -- in one day!" No wonder the city is famous for hangovers.

The TV-ad wars went thermonuclear in Las Vegas on that day for a reason: it was the eve of the start of the early-voting period  in Nevada. According to Vegas-based political expert John Ralston, perhaps 60-70 percent of voters in Las Vegas and surrounding Clark County will cast ballots before Election Day on November 2.

But Tracey says that advertising in Las Vegas, and in some other pivotal cities, such as Philadelphia, remain at record levels.  

Campaigns this year are likely to spend a record $3 billion on television advertising alone, and the proportion of them that are negative is higher than ever, though there is no way to precisely quantify it. "The Democrats are wary of trying to brag about anything, given the bad mood and the recession," said Eugene Kiely, the Philadelphia director of FactCheck.org, "So they have done relatively few positive ads. It's been attack from the beginning."

Republicans, of course, have every reason to go negative, given the climate of economic fear, anger at President Obama and the Democrats -- and the GOP's own refusal to be specific about what government programs (Social Security and Medicare, anyone?) they would need to cut if they were serious about their professed (and new found) commitment to balancing the federal budget.

And there is one other source of bile: advertising by secretly-funded, "independent" groups, most of them conservative ones such as Karl Rove's American Crossroads. Legally required to avoid all contact with the candidates' campaigns, these groups tend to prefer attack mode because it is less likely to require coordination -- and has the added benefit of giving the candidate deniability, if needed.

"There's no scientific or objective metric but the overall tone of the campaign it sure FEELS worse than before," said Brooks Jackson, who runs FactCheck.org. "There's more money being spent and the volume is louder."

At this point in any election cycle, it is mandatory to wonder aloud whether even the American voter -- as habituated to TV as he or she is -- hasn't reached the saturation point, making the ads somehow counterproductive. "It's overkill, absolutely," says Rep. Bob Brady, a savvy but proudly old-school politician who runs the Democrats' still-formidable Democratic machine in Philadelphia. "A lot of the money being spent is wasted, totally wasted."

But every cycle it is just as traditional for consultants to offer the same answer: they need to spend more than ever, especially as Election Day nears, to reach the small number of undecided voters -- who must be living in caves with no cable -- and to shore up turnout among the already committed. It's like watering a flower pot with a fire hose, but consultants and the television industry love it, and the donors, secret and public (ands who don't know a precinct list from a pinot noir) have been convinced that this kind of spending is a best practice.

"The old saying in advertising is that half of the money you spend is wasted, but you don't know which half," said Tracey. "In politics it's three quarters." 

That's great for some people -- unless you live in Las Vegas.

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