WASHINGTON — The number of times Senator John McCain’s new advertisement attacking Senator Barack Obama for canceling a visit with wounded troops in Germany last week has been shown fully or partly on local, national and cable newscasts: well into the hundreds.
The number of times that spot actually, truly ran as a paid commercial: roughly a dozen.
Result for Mr. McCain: a public relations coup that allowed him to show his toughest campaign advertisement of the year — one widely panned as misleading — to millions of people, largely free, through television news media hungry for political news with arresting visual imagery.
Political campaigns have for years sought to broadcast their ads free by making them intriguing enough to draw wide coverage from news outlets.
And Mr. McCain’s campaign has proved particularly adept at getting such free air time in recent weeks, as news stations endlessly repeat the advertisements, which feature provocative visuals that can fill time during a relative lull in the campaign season.
TV ad wars
The campaign’s success in getting such wide coverage of the ad, evident through new tracking technology, comes as it seeks to maintain parity with Mr. Obama’s better-financed campaign in their intensive television advertising war.
A new study by the Advertising Project at the University of Wisconsin shows that in terms of paid advertising, Mr. McCain has so far been able to nearly match Mr. Obama’s volume with help from the Republican Party. But the early advertising suggests a heightened ad war this election cycle: Together, the two sides have combined to spend more than $50 million already on general-election commercials, running roughly 30 percent more spots than President Bush and Senator John Kerry had at a comparable point in 2004.
And as Mr. Obama’s campaign begins to intensify its advertising drive, including a planned campaign during the Olympics in August, television’s receptivity is a welcome boost for Mr. McCain.
“For McCain, it’s the cheapest and most efficient way to keep himself in the game when he’s up against a candidate who’s essentially going to have unlimited funds,” said Kenneth M. Goldstein, director of the Advertising Project.
Wide reach, little cost
New television monitoring services, put to use by The New York Times this week, vividly illustrate just how wide an audience Mr. McCain’s latest spot reached at relatively little cost.
The spot accuses Mr. Obama of canceling a planned visit to wounded American troops during a visit to Germany last week because it “seems the Pentagon wouldn’t allow him to bring cameras.” Mr. Obama said he had no plans to bring cameras. He canceled his visit amid what he said was concern he would appear to be using wounded troops as pawns during the overtly political leg of his trip.
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As an announcer says, “He made time to go to the gym, but canceled a visit with wounded troops,” the spot shows Mr. Obama playing basketball — without noting that it was during a visit he made to active-duty troops in Kuwait earlier in the week.
Mr. McCain’s campaign released the advertisement on Saturday afternoon, and it was shown on television news before it made its first appearance as a paid commercial, during “Saturday Night Live,” in Denver. The late local news on the NBC affiliate there, KUSA, showed much of Mr. McCain’s commercial in a report about its coming run. “He’s putting it in front of your eyes here in Colorado before anywhere else,” said the anchor, Carrie McClure. The report included a brief rebuttal from Mr. Obama.
The spot got extensive coverage on “Face the Nation” and “Fox News Sunday” the following morning. Those programs are available on scores of stations. And the Web sites of The New York Times and other news outlets posted links to it.
Yet, by the end of the day, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, it had actually run all of six times as a paid advertisement.
The free Sunday morning coverage also showed the limits of relying on news programs to carry advertising: A guest on “Face the Nation,” Senator Chuck Hagel, the Nebraska Republican who traveled with Mr. Obama abroad, called the spot “inappropriate”; Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, said on “Fox News Sunday” that the ad was “beneath John McCain.”
Similarly, on MSNBC, the chief foreign affairs correspondent, Andrea Mitchell, said Monday: “Obama had no intention of bringing cameras with him. I was there; I can vouch for that.”
Nevertheless, the advertisement ran in part or in full roughly two dozen times within the news coverage of MSNBC and the Fox News Channel, and less frequently on CNN, according to a review on ShadowTV, a database of programming on cable and nearly 100 television stations.
Early Tuesday morning Brooke Wagner, an anchor at the CBS affiliate in Denver — where the ad first ran Saturday night, on the NBC affiliate — again introduced the spot. “A new TV commercial from John McCain is criticizing Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama,” Ms. Wagner reported, before showing much of the ad.
This story, With Commercial, McCain Gets Much More Than This Money's Worth, originally appeared in The New York Times.
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