The proof that media consultants abuse their clients, according to Doug Bailey, founder of The Hotline political news service and former Republican consultant, is the sheer volume of airtime they advise candidates to purchase now.
The number of times each political ad airs has risen exponentially over the years — a phenomenon other consultants confirm — and in Bailey's mind, for no valid strategic reason.
He's convinced that bloated ad buys flow directly from the consultants' pecuniary interests.
A study by the Center for Public Integrity found that in the 2003-2004 presidential election cycle, candidates for national office, party committees and independent "527" political groups spent more than $1.78 billion on campaign consultants, 67 percent of which went to media consultants who handle ads.
The silver-haired Bailey says that with each passing year, he sees an escalation in volume of political advertising, which is measured and priced in the television business according to "rating points."
"In the seventies, a campaign that bought 500 gross rating points a week in a market was considered to be either on the verge or having crossed the line [of] too much," he says during an interview in the third-floor lunchroom down the hall from his office at the Watergate. "And yet today, in the closing weeks of any contested campaign, it's not unusual for campaigns to be buying 3,000 gross rating points. Which is just a massive, massive buy."
And why? "Because consultants earn more money, the more ads that are bought," he says.
To put the numbers in perspective, a 500-point buy means the entire viewing audience will see a commercial — on average — five times in one week. A 3,000-point buy means viewers — in theory — will see it an average of 30 times.
Veteran consultants confirm that they now recommend buying several times more commercial time than in past years.
In the early days of political advertising, Republican consultant John Brabender says, viewers needed to see a political ad three times before it made an impact. Then it was six times. Now, it's 10. He and others justify the heavy air campaign as essential to grab the attention of a distracted, multitasking, and somewhat tuned-out audience.
"Now, somebody's got a headset on, somebody else is on a computer playing video games or checking their e-mail. Or changing the channels much more often, because you've got so many different choices than you used to have. And so just getting a commercial to resonate and be seen is much more difficult."
Thomas Edmonds, a former president of the American Association of Political Consultants, agrees.
"Because the 500 gross rating points [buy] doesn't work. That's why the number has gone up," says Edmonds, a Republican consultant based in Vienna, Va. "The commercial may air but you never saw it if you had TiVo. It never got through to you."
Consultants volunteer that something else is also at work: the public is more skeptical and likely to click the remote once they catch on that an ad is political.
"Political commercials just don't have the impact they used to," says Brabender.
That's true, in part, he says, because it's hard to compete in the same commercial space with clever product ads that cost a million dollars to write, shoot, and edit, compared to the typical $20,000 budget for a political ad. Then, scripts can also fall under the influence of pollsters, the candidate's friends and family, with results that are "too vanilla."
"What's really happened is we've decided that since we make such poor commercials in this industry and nobody's paying attention to them, we have the solution: we'll run it more often. And that truly is what's happening," he says during a talk to fellow consultants.
Interviewed after one of his presentations, Brabender sounds even more defeatist about the strategy of bombarding viewers with ads.
"Most political commercials are so poorly produced, they can run them the rest of their lives and I don't think that they're going to have an impact," he says.
Edmonds, the GOP consultant, calls the turn-off phenomenon "association discharge."
"You see that that's an ad for Tim Kaine running for governor [of Virginia], you go, 'Oh crap!' And you just, you know, that's 'I've seen it before, or I just don't care,'" he says.
To answer why, then, ads are repeated over and over Edmonds offers an analogy — to drinking.
"If you could get a buzz at 500 and then you don't get it anymore, then you drink two beers or three beers or four beers so that you get that same impact. And the pollsters [are] measuring this and saying, 'People still don't think that you have a plan to improve the transportation in northern Virginia. Ah! Well, then buy more media!'"
Candidates are starting to question some of these decisions.
"They're suspicious of why you're recommending the media to them," says Edmonds. "Especially people who are incumbents, they are beginning to feel, 'I remember six years ago we did this, and we didn't spend a fraction of this and everywhere I went people said 'I really like your ad.' Now we're spending three times as much and I go there and they don't even know I'm on television,'" says Edmonds. "In their unscientific, layman way, they are beginning to question this escalation that's taken place."
Ultimately, he says, campaign decisions are the candidate's call. "I don't think that makes a candidate a victim if a consultant tries to sell him more than what he needs," he says.
Doug Bailey says he left the consulting business in the late 1980s, disheartened that negative ads had permanently stained political discourse.
During the intensity, exhaustion and paranoia of a campaign, Bailey says, candidates wind up leaning heavily on the professionals they hire for advice. After it's all over, he says he will sometimes quiz candidates about why they put on — in his view — excessive advertising campaigns.
"Almost always, the answer is a form of, 'Well, hell, they were telling me I had to do it.'"