Campaign 2012, Where Old Media Is New Again

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We live in the age of the iPhone, yet the 2012 presidential campaign has so far been run on Betamax. In the Republican primary, new media and mobile technologies are next to incidental, subsumed by a nostalgic embrace of a technology that was cutting edge in the 1960s: television.

A Pew Poll released in February found that the percentage of Americans who regularly get information about the campaign online was basically flat from 2008, at 25%, in part because less people were paying attention overall. The share of Americans who get campaign information from social networks was relatively tiny–just 2% of Americans say they regularly learn about the campaign from Twitter, 3% from YouTube and 6% from Facebook.

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The boob tube, meanwhile, remains dominant–36% cite cable news as a regular source, 32% cite the local TV news, 26% cite nightly network news and 16% cite morning network news. The Republican debates, broadcast in prime time, have set the narrative. About three in four Americans report seeing or hearing campaign commercials, which have been run almost entirely on cable, network and radio. Sure there has been some erosion in the audience for network television and newspapers over the last decade, but the difference is more than subsumed by the similarities. We see a media landscape that has only slightly shifted over the last decade.

And the campaigns, despite all their fancy social network widgets and strategists on Twitter, know this. Huge amounts of money have been spent in the Republican primary on a technique that came of age with Lyndon Johnson, television advertising, with nearly $80 million going out the door so far, according to Smart Media Group Delta. By comparison, Republicans spent just $57 million in campaign ads during the 2008 primary campaign season. John McCain wrapped up the nomination with just $11 million in broadcast ads. Mitt Romney, and the super PAC that supports him, have already spent more on ads in Michigan than the roughly $4 million that Mike Huckabee spent in his entire 2008 campaign.

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Not only is the technology the same as it has been for decades, the techniques have hardly evolved as well. By far the biggest spender in television ads in 2012 to date has been Restore Our Future, the Romney-backing super PAC, whose ads are made by Larry McCarthy, a GOP ad man who cut his teeth in the business in 1988 with the notorious Willie Horton ad that helped hobble Michael Dukakis. To this day, McCarthy’s spots have the look and feel of something that was designed with Max Headroom technology, if not by someone who thinks beauty is overrated. Here is a sample.

Here is another.

In form, structure and aesthetics, these spots could have been run in House races since the 1990s. Here is a spot that Bob Dole ran against Bill Clinton in 1996. It’s basically the same ad.

In short, there has been no real innovation. To be fair, Romney’s own ads, which have been mostly drowned out by the super PAC’s, demonstrate higher production values, and more creativity, but they are certainly not revolutionary.

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The question now is whether this throwback campaign is simply a symptom of the Republican Party, or whether it will continue through the general election. The Obama campaign has been making significant investments in social networks. They have also put out some early creative spots, designed for a new-media audience, that show real promise of ingenuity, like this web-only piece that debuted last week.

Everything about that spot is designed to go viral. But right now the Obama campaign is basically a campaign-in-waiting, and there is just no way of predicting whether this sort of thing will make a big impact or just be a footnote. There is no doubt that the viral energy that defined the 2008 campaign, and drove such huge online numbers, has flagged. For those looking for a new era of politics, the 2012 campaign so far is certainly not change they can believe in.

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