BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone. ARUN RATH: And I’m Arun Rath. The first Democratic presidential debate took place on Thursday, arguably the starting gun in the TV campaign for the Presidency. Soon viewers in the battleground states will be assaulted daily by political ads on the small screen. Strangely, though, millions of people have already seen this ad, far more than watched Thursday’s debate. [CLIP]: HILLARY CLINTON: I hope you’ve learned a little bit more about what I believe in and am trying to do, and really helped this conversation about our country get started. I hope to keep this conversation going – [SOUND OF EXPLOSION] - all the way to November 2008. [EXPLOSION] [END OF CLIP] ARUN RATH: You’ve likely seen it yourself - the classic 1984 Apple Macintosh ad turned into an anti-Hillary pro-Obama commercial by someone who said he wasn’t working for any campaign.
For years, TV ad wars have burned through acres of campaign cash, but in The New York Times Magazine this weekend Matt Bai writes that the ascendance of the Internet means that politicians may soon be wondering where to spend all that money. MATT BAI: I really think it’s unrealistic to plan for a political future where people are getting the bulk of their news from a television at a set time at night. I mean, already that model is eroding, and I think by the next cycle, in 2012, that TV ads really won’t play the role they’ve played. ARUN RATH: Now, a lot of people would say, hang on a minute, you know, not everyone has broadband, not everyone even has an Internet connection. A lot of people still find out about candidates and issues through television, through the same old ads we’ve seen for ever. MATT BAI: Right. I mean, Arun, this is the argument, right? This is when you talk to Democratic consultants, they tell you, well, that’s very classist. You know, there’s all these people out there, all these working stiffs and poor people, and they don’t have either the time, the inclination, the money to go out and buy DVRs or put broadband in their homes.
I think that’s true right now, but I think it defies everything we’ve learned about technology. I mean, ten years ago plasma TVs were for the very wealthy. Now you can go into a housing project and find a plasma TV.
When I was reporting at The Boston Globe in 1995, we had like six cell phones and they were too big to put in your pocket, and you had to sign ‘em out of a glass case, and you know, Lord forbid you left one somewhere. You’d have been billed I don’t know how much. You wouldn’t have been able to pay rent for a month.
Now you walk into a 7/11, you can buy one, use it for 20 minutes and throw it in the garbage can and everybody in every economic strata in America is carrying a cell phone, including kids to school.
So, there’s no reason historically to think that technology’s just going to stop at a certain class. And I think by 2012 even, the experience is going to be shared across all income levels. ARUN RATH: Now, you talk to a lot of the insiders, the political consultants and the like. Do you feel like they’re generally turned on to this brave new future, or are they clinging to the old model? Are they scared, excited? MATT BAI: [CHUCKLES] I wouldn’t say they’re excited about it. I think they get it intellectually. Some of them have been very quick to adapt, some of them have not. In part, this is a generational thing too.
But there is both a component of habit and a component of financial self-interest here among consultants here in Washington, which is, you know, once they say well, you’re right, you know, these ads don’t really matter and people aren’t really watching them and they’re skipping over them on their Tivos, and they’re not especially well produced and they all sound the same, and everybody’s zoning them out, and maybe this isn’t the best way to get your message out there – once they say that, they’ve just thrown away a pretty significant [LAUGHS] meal ticket, right?
Essentially, consultants keep driving up the costs of a race by insisting that it has to be fought over the air at high expense. The networks keep raising the money to astronomical rates for these ads, ‘cause they know that the campaigns are raising it, and the ad guys are making out like bandits. And I don’t think they’re going to be quick to tell anybody that that business model no longer works, but I do think it’s going to become apparent. ARUN RATH: There’s also the sort of X factor of YouTube type of videos. There’s the famous ad derived from the Apple ad, but there’s also a lot of candidates getting caught off guard. I mean, could you really in terms of advertising put a dollar value on the Maccaca moment for Jim Webb in the Allen campaign? MATT BAI: [LAUGHS] No, you cannot. Right, I mean, that is certainly the most effective way of messaging, through the sort of viral model that the Internet provides, and the Internet will cost money. I mean, I think it would be naïve to think that, you know, because it’s free to upload something to YouTube right now, that ten years from now campaigns’ll be basically free, because everybody goes running around putting videos up and ads.
I mean, there’s money to be made. Someone’s going to learn to make it. But I don’t see any way, just given the wide infinite expanse of content on the Internet, it’s hard to see how, sheerly through market dynamic, that could get nearly as expensive as broadcast, where you’re essentially talking about three networks at most in every market.
And then there’s this interesting question, well, if you’re raising a hundred million dollars, and you were planning to spend sixty of it on TV ads and suddenly TV ads are not a very effective way to get your message out any more, then what are you going to do with all this money?
And I suspect, I hope, that the money’s just simply going to become less important and that ultimately, campaigns make a determination that hey, they might better spend their time with the candidate out doing other things and actually thinking about the argument and the message that you want to send, than constantly raising all this money that buys you maybe some TV ads that nobody’s watching but nothing that’s gonna actually turn the campaign in your favor. ARUN RATH: Matt, thank you very much. MATT BAI: Any time, Arun. It was a lot of fun. ARUN RATH: Matt Bai is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and the author of the upcoming book, The Argument; Billionaires, Bloggers and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics.