Ad agencies $65 million winners in election campaign

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

One thing is certain about the recent off-year national election - it was a windfall for the advertising industry, especially the electronic media.

Political analysts are putting the tab for the election and the primaries that led up to it at more than half a billion dollars - for gubernatorial races and runs for seats in the United States Senate and House of Representatives. That may be expensive for the candidates and their supporters. But it was highly profitable for advertising agencies, bringing in revenues estimated at more than

The advertising earned further millions through commissions or fees for placing political ads in local or state contests.

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As always, as good chunk of political promotion dollars was spent on radio and TV in a flurry of last-minute advertising blitzes designed to push candidates over the top to victory. The question is, was this an effective use of media advertising?

Experts disagree on the answer. Many believe that while it may be difficult to prove just how effective a big burst of advertising is at the very end of the campaign, without it the candidate might just as well concede defeat.

David Garth, president of the Garth Group in New York, is a firm believer in the kind of results to be expected from applying modern marketing techniques such as research and advertising in the political arena. Mr. Garth has guided many a candidate to victory over the past 23 years. For example, he was Edward I. Koch's media man in his two successful bids for mayor of New York.

This year he watched in dismay as one of his candidates, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, lost by the slimmest of margins (0.06 percentage points) in his bid for the California governership. Conceivably, more money and more advertising would have pushed this candidate over the top.

''Money alone is certainly no guarantee of winning an election,'' Garth said. ''But it can be an enormous help. Look at Lautenberg's victory over Fenwick in New Jersey.'' (Democrat Frank Lautenberg, a wealthy but little-known New Jersey businessman, poured in millions of his own money to defeat his far better known Republican rival, Millicent Fenwick, in a race for the US Senate seat.)

''I doubt very much that voters hold it against a candidate when he has money and spends it to get elected,'' Garth reckons. ''The voting turnout was up, and in certain big city areas by substantial amounts. So political advertising can't be the turnoff some observers thought it was.''

In addition to a number of races around the country which featured campaign chests crammed to overflowing with millions of media dollars, many reporters noted a prevalence of ''negative'' spots this time. Garth indicated it would be misleading to generalize about the results of the election. But he concedes, ''In certain areas, there were a lot more of these hard-hitting and fiercely competitive TV commercials than we've seen before.''

The contest for governor of New York was a close match in which Mario Cuomo, the Democratic lieutenant governor, nosed out Lewis Lehrman, a Republican businessman. If the finish was close, the amount of money expended by each candidate was not. But in this case, it was the loser, Mr. Lehrman, who poured in millions of his own money to go down to defeat. Just how much did the contest cost? For Lehrman's bid, the cost was more than $13.5 million, according to his press secretary, John Buckley. Of this amount, over $8 million came out of the candidate's pocket, Mr. Buckley reported.

On the other hand, Mr. Cuomo's winning campaign (including a hard-fought primary against Mayor Koch, the Democratic challenger) cost him less than $5 million. Ironically, campaign funds for Cuomo began pouring in late in the campaign, leaving a surplus of about $1 million at the end. Part of this overage was used to run a gracious, 30-second TV spot featuring the Cuomo family in which the governor-elect thanked the voters and pledged to work for everyone in the state.

Both sides agree this was a largely issue-oriented campaign, in which money for media blitzes did not make that much difference. ''You can't buy an election by spending money on TV,'' Buckley notes. ''Lew Lehrman was able to get access for his ideas and the voters made their choice. It was a hard-hitting campaign, but not a negative one.''

Lehrman turned to Roger Ailes and his Ailes Communications as his media expert for both the primary and his election drive. ''Lew Lehrman closed very strongly,'' according to Larry McCarthy, an Ailes vice-president. ''Generally speaking, you won't see major movement in the closing days of an election. But not going full blast at the end would be a major mistake. At the end, there wasn't a whole lot of inventory of TV commercial time. But we used all the 'avails' (available TV time) we could grab.''

Harvey Cohen, an independent political advertising expert, was the man tapped to help Cuomo with his successful bid. He talks about the frustration of campaign money that comes in late. ''There was this tremendous infusion of last-minute money. We were already heavy with our closing schedule and it was hard to find what we considered good 'avails.' There's no question but we could have spent some of that million-dollar overage,'' Mr. Cohen reported, ''but we didn't think it was a good investment.''

What are the marketing lessons to be learned from this expensive, intensive, hard-hitting campaign?

For one thing, the Republicans have learned their marketing lessons well and have all the promotion machinery in place for winning future campaigns, including strong direct-mail operations, political observers point out. There is little evidence that the often brawling Democratic Party has learned its marketing lessons as well.

On the other hand, Mr. Garth reports his firm is today split about evenly between political and business clients interested in his marketing, public relations, and advertising services. What's more, corporate clients benefit from political polling techniques which can be applied to market research to yield more accurate and complete marketing data because they're more sensitive and detailed.

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