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updated 3/16/2004 4:49:09 PM ET 2004-03-16T21:49:09

The strategy behind political television advertising in U.S. presidential races has conventionally been somewhat heavy-handed: Saturate channels in swing states to win over local voters.

So while voters in Ohio have traditionally been saturated with political adverts for the two main parties, those in New York, which tends to support Democratic presidential candidates, often have little evidence of a campaign on their televisions.

But the campaign to re-elect President George W. Bush in November is using television as no other candidate has.

Rather than simply segmenting voters into geographical constituencies, it is also focusing resources on capturing support among specific demographic groups — by targeting the cable channels they watch.

The development not only marks a sharp break from recent presidential campaigns, it also shows that politicians are learning a lesson from other advertisers about targeting a message in a crowded media market.

So far John Kerry, the Democratic nominee-in-waiting, is sticking with past practice, running adverts only in the 16 states his campaign thinks are up for grabs.

Mr. Bush's campaign is also devoting a lot of attention to the battleground states. But with its first set of ad buys this month, it is turning to national cable networks.

It is using Speed Channel and FX, both owned by Fox, to go after "Nascar dads", the stock-car racing fans who some pollsters say could determine the winner of the election. Business types across the U.S. may see Bush adverts on CNBC; golf fans may catch them on the Golf Channel.

The Bush campaign will not disclose details of its ad-buying approach but calls it an efficient way to deliver the president's message. "People are increasingly getting their news and information from a variety of sources," says Scott Stanzel, a campaign spokesman.

Mr. Stanzel says all the Bush team's current adverts are running on all the outlets where the campaign has bought time. (The Bush campaign is running a Spanish-language version of one of its adverts on Univision and Telemundo, the Spanish- language networks, in several battleground states.) But he would not rule out running tailored adverts on specific channels — a staggering possibility in the land of 200 channels.

With total spending on the presidential race — by the candidates, their parties and outside groups — expected to approach $1 billion (€815m, £555m), there will be plenty of opportunity for specialization.

The Golf Channel boasts that its typical viewer is a 48-year-old affluent man. Nascar audiences are more southern and more blue-collar. In the hands of media-savvy advertising copywriters, it is easy to imagine this leading to different pitches for different audiences.

"The person watching the Golf Channel is not the same as the one watching Oxygen [a network aimed at women]," says Linda Kaplan Thaler, a New York advertising executive.

The advertising strategy makes sense for other reasons, too, she says. "We're all communicating with each other all the time," on the telephone and on the Internet, says Ms. Thaler, who has written and produced adverts for past Democratic presidential candidates. "If somebody really wants to influence somebody in Ohio, they can't forget that that person in Ohio has connections with people in states that may not be in play."

Ken Goldstein, who studies political advertising at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is more skeptical. "There are tremendous opportunities with cable," he says. "But you've got to put an awful lot of spots on cable to reach as many people as the broadcast networks."

Copyright The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved.

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