Political Ads: America Discovers Columbus

If you live in Columbus, Ohio, my sympathy.

Don’t get me wrong. Columbus is a wonderful town – the state capital, birthplace of the late great humorist James Thurber, location of Ohio State University and my brother Tim.

But if you’re a television viewer in Columbus you may be wishing about now that you could jump into your set and join the castaways on Survivor. According to the newspaper USA Today, “As the amount of money spent on political persuasion has risen, there are now some places where political ads are more like a steady rain. Here in Columbus, it is pouring.”

Columbus draws a lot of political advertising because it’s the largest city in a big swing state that this year also has a heated Senate contest and congressional races reconfigured by redistricting. What’s different here is that when the campaigns end, the advertising keeps on going. Political ads are on the air in Columbus all the time.

“That’s great news for the local TV stations battered by a recession that torpedoed their commercial advertisers. ‘We’re on the other end saying, “Thank you.” We’re running around with a bushel basket trying to catch it when it falls,’ said Tom Griesdorn, general manager of WBNS-TV, the Columbus CBS affiliate.”

He’ll get no thanks from the channel surfers of Columbus. Since March of last year, according to the public access files at WBNS, the station has aired 2,588 political spots that pulled in $2.16 million. And it’s only one of five commercial TV outlets in the area. According to data from Kantar Media, the 22 counties in the Columbus television market were bombarded with 43,134 political ads during the 2010 midterm elections; and even last year, when there were no congressional or gubernatorial campaigns, viewers were subjected to 16,111 ads, an average of 44 a day. The advertising research firm Borrell Associates projects that in Ohio’s eight media markets, this year political advertising will hit a whopping $391 million.

The sole consolation may be that Columbus is not alone:

“Right now, Las Vegas, Grand Junction, Colo.; Charlottesville, Va., and Tampa are on the list of top markets for both the Obama campaign and Crossroads GPS, the Republican super PAC that runs ads critical of the president. Between the two groups, viewers in those cities saw 1,583 ads over 11 days in April, according to figures released Wednesday by the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political ads.”

In the end, media experts wonder if all the ads made possible by the cash unleashed after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision will have been worth it. Kip Cassino, a political media researcher at Borrell asked, “Do you just stop paying attention to it? That’s really going to be the question that gets answered when people are picking over the bones of this one. Did it work? Did spending all that money really do the job?”

By the time November 6 rolls around, Columbus viewers may be begging for a return to ads for Slankets, Lint Lizard and the Contour Cloud Pillow.