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Political Media Buying
A Brief Guide

by Tobe Berkovitz

Tobe Berkovitz, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at the College of Communication, Boston University where he teaches courses in advertising and political campaigning. He has worked for twenty years as a political media consultant specializing in media buying.

Copyright ©1996 Tobe Berkovitz, Ph.D.



Developing the Media Plan

Timing of the Media Buy

Target Audiences
Undecided Voters

Geographic Considerations

The Media Mix
Cable Television

Commercial Formats

Planning the Media Buy

Television Network AdvertisingTime
Cable TV Network Advertising Time
Spot TV Advertising Time
Spot Radio Advertising Time

Tobe Berkovitz
Political Media Buying

Media Electorate Money
All sections.
See Contents above.
Target Audiences

Geographic Considerations
Developing the Media Plan

See Tables for cost estimates.


For political commercials to be an effective means of persuasion they must be seen by the voter. The goal of media buying in an election campaign is to reach a defined target audience in the most efficient and economical way possible. The media buy should be an inherent part of the overall advertising strategy, and effective media planning should work within the framework of the broad communication goals established by the campaign.

During the initial stages of campaign planning, certain key factors relating to the advertising strategy should be considered. These include the following elements:

Developing The Media Plan

The buying of electronic media is based on gross rating points and the cost paid to buy a rating point. Gross rating points, GRPs, are the sum total of the ratings achieved for a media schedule. It is the calculation of the ratings per program multiplied by the frequency, or the number of times the commercial is aired in each program time slot. CPP is the cost necessary to purchase a single rating point. To estimate media expenses, the buyer multiplies the total gross rating points by the cost per point to approximate the media cost for an advertising schedule. CPP is a quick way to provide rough cost estimates during the early planning stages of the election.

Advertising time can be bought nationally (a network buy), or in designated media markets (spot television buy). GRPs indicate the reach of the advertising buy throughout the country for a network buy, or in the specific media market for a spot buy.

The number of gross rating points provides an estimate of the exposure of the target audience to the campaign's advertising. The general rule of thumb is 100 GRP's means the average TV viewer will see a commercial once. Therefore, 500 GRP's should expose the average viewer five times to the commercial. Since this is a conceptual average, a heavy viewer might see the commercial eight times and a light viewer may only see the spot two times.

A minimal threshold must be achieved for advertising to have an impact on the audience. For spot television buys, the average target voter should see a commercial at least five times in a week, i.e. the spot should achieve 500 GRP's, for it to have the potential to influence the voting decision. 650 gross rating points is considered a substantial buy for one week. Many campaigns run over 1,000 points per week during saturation media buys. For network television buys 200 GRP's is considered light, 300 medium, and 400+ a heavy buy.

Timing of the Media Buy

Few campaigns can afford to run television and radio flights continuously from the start of the campaign until election day. Decisions must be made to maximize the impact of the advertising by creating a media plan that takes advantage of the voters' decision-making processes.

The overall schedule for the media buy can incorporate three different patterns. Advertising can be aired continuously at a single level of gross rating points throughout the election. This is known as a continuity pattern. Employing a single level of GRPs for the entire media buy fails to take into account variations that occur during the campaign.

If the levels of GRPs are varied during this period of time, then the campaign is employing a second technique called pulsing. By heavying up the media buy at key times, such as the beginning and the final weeks of the election, the weight and timing of the advertising is matched with the political objectives of the campaign.

Flighting is the third method of creating an advertising schedule. The phrase advertising flight describes the time when commercials are aired. When flighting is used in relation to a scheduling technique, it refers to a method that has advertising going on and off the air. The advantage of the flighting technique is that it allows a campaign that does not have funds for running spots continuously to conserve money and maximize the impact of the commercials by airing them at key strategic times during the campaign.

Frequently when flighting is employed, radio or cable TV will be used to supplement the advertising campaign during the times when television commercials are off the air. This method of media planning allows the messages and themes of the campaign to reach the voter through radio or cable TV, less costly alternatives to broadcast TV.

In the 45 days preceding a primary and the 60 days before a general election, special regulations take effect mandating that stations offer political candidates "the lowest unit charge of the station for the same class and amount of time for the same period." This federal regulation is known as lowest unit rate, or LUR, and requires that all candidates be charged the lowest rate available for advertisers on the station.

Target Audiences

Effective media buying requires a clearly defined target audience to be reached by the advertising message. Once the target audience is defined, the media plan should be capable of maximizing contact with these key groups through cost-efficient buying.

The importance of the various groups identified as the target audience can vary throughout the election. Certain key targets, such as undecideds, remain constant. However, as the campaign progresses, the need to reach demographic and socio-economic groups can change, having an impact on the timing and targeting of the media plan.
One effective means of buying media to reach a target audience is by demographics. The target audience is usually defined in demographic terms by the campaign's pollster. In most political campaigns, the target audience skews older than is required for many consumer product advertisers. The key demographic in elections is usually adults 35+. When evaluating program ratings, analysis of adults 35+ will often show that certain primetime programs, news, and some talk shows can provide an efficient means of targeting this group.

As a result of programming strategies designed to attract listeners within tightly defined demographics, radio is a cost-efficient medium for reaching target voters. Certain types of programming, music, and on-air personalities are focused to reach adults 35+. Any demographic group targeted by the campaign can be reached effectively by analyzing radio ratings and the type of program aired by a station.
Undecided Voters
Undecided voters are always a prime target audience for paid advertising. Targeting by the demographic and socio-economic characteristics of this group will vary during different stages of the election. The education, income, and interest in news and current events of the undecided voters influence media use habits. When voter ID techniques profile this group, the media buy can be oriented to run in programs most popular with the target audience.

Demographic and lifestyle data that characterize the undecided voter can be matched with ratings information to increase the efficiency of the buy. This process follows the CPP buying procedures. Understanding the types of programs, or qualitatively analyzing programs favored, is also an effective way of maximizing the impact of the media buy.

Early in the campaign, undecideds might be defined as two separate groups, each with its own unique aspects. Many undecideds at the start of an election are upscale voters who will seek out information on the candidates and the issues. This group of educated voters will watch news and current affairs programs. Local newscasts, network morning news and information programs, primetime newsmagazines, and Sunday newsmaker interview shows are an ideal method for reaching this politically interested and active group of undecided voters.

In primetime, upscale programs such as ER, NYPD Blue, and Chicago Hope, as well as sitcoms focused for adults like Fraiser and Mad About You could be rotated into the buy to expand the reach of the campaign's message. ABC Monday Night Football has a high quality audience, as do primetime newsmagazine programs such as 20/20, 60 Minutes, and Dateline NBC. The high cost per thousand for these shows is a direct result of the concentration of upscale viewers. (See Tables.)

The other significant group of undecideds are voters with a minimal interest in politics and current events. These voters tend to make up their minds at the last minute and usually can be influenced by ads on radio and television. As the campaign progresses, this group frequently becomes the prime target for the campaign's advertising. Profiles of these voters can be used for targeting advertising buys, particularly at the end of the campaign when their support is essential.

Voters without much interest in politics would tend to watch entertainment oriented programs. The buy would then be skewed towards game shows, talk shows, and syndicated sit-coms which air in the late afternoon and early evening. The low interest undecided voter will frequently watch syndicated entertainment shows rather than local news programs, and these must also be included in the buy, running opposite news adjacency spots for the upscale undecideds. In primetime, Made For Television movies, action programs, and sit-coms targeted at young adults can also be included in the buy as an efficient way to reach this key group.

Geographic Considerations

Broadcast markets are defined by Arbitron as Areas of Dominant Influence (ADI) and by Nielsen as Designated Market Areas (DMA). These geographic regions consist of counties that receive broadcast signals primarily from stations within this defined market. Broadcast planning and budgeting are arranged around this geographic structure.

Polling and campaign management define geographic target priorities. The media buy then allocates funds according to campaign targeting decisions. The concept of advertising weighting is a method of deciding which percentage of a media buy is spent in each separate geographic market. Weighting encourages the campaign to prioritize the importance of the different cities and regions of the state, and then spend advertising funds in relation to these decisions.

Each individual broadcast market should be analyzed to determine cost per point levels for the campaigns advertising. Then the CPP for the markets are compared to evaluate the cost-efficiency of the media for various geographic regions. This analysis should be included with target opportunities, field organization, and the candidate's homebase, to establish the advertising weighting for the media buy.

Most television stations are surveyed at least four times a year. Television usage varies during different times of the year. Radio ratings are based on the same principles as are TV, but are somewhat different in nature. Radio programming is divided into broad dayparts, program blocks occurring during the day.

Radio time can be purchased on a daypart basis, placing orders for commercials to be aired during specific daypart blocks. Radio listenership is usually highest during morning drivetime, 6 am until lO am, and in evening drivetime, 3 pm until 7 pm, making these time periods desirable for campaign advertising.

The Media Mix

Television is the prime medium for delivering the campaign's advertising message. The large size of the audience tends to result in relatively broad demographics for most television programs. The buyer should go beyond demographics and consider the content and nature of the TV programs included in the buy. As a result of its large audience, TV is an extremely cost-efficient method of delivering the advertising message. On a cost per point basis, TV is excellent for reaching an overall audience.

The media buy determines the mix of network and spot television. This is a key strategic decision and is based on the campaign's geographic targeting priorities. If a national audience is desired, some of the television buy will be placed on network programming. This is extremely expensive. If the advertising strategy is based on reaching voters in a limited number of specific states and cities, then spot television is the preferred media choice. A combination of network and spot television is an attractive option for some campaigns.

The television broadcast day is divided into sections that are called dayparts. Advertising time is placed in programs that fall into these dayparts. The following is an overview of television station dayparts:
Early AM:
Local news, network news and information programs (GMA,Today).
Reaches opinion leaders and high interest voters.
Syndicated talk shows, game shows, soaps.
Reaches women 25-54 and women 35+. Average education is high school.
Early fringe:
Syndicated talk shows, sitcoms, and tabloid TV programs.
Reach is similar to day viewers.
Early News:
Local news, network news.
Reaches better educated likely voters.
Syndicated sitcoms, game shows, tabloid TV programs.
High ratings, cost-efficient reach, varied viewer profiles.
Local spots sold in adjacency time slots between network programs.
High ratings, varied demographics, frequently a premium audience.
Late news:
Local news.
Reaches highly educated most likely voters.
Late fringe:
Network late night programs, syndicated sitcoms.
Wide variety of audiences.

The major advantages of radio are that airtime is relatively inexpensive and it provides much tighter targeting than is possible on television. Radio stations employ formats, or types of programming, which are designed to attract a narrower audience than is possible with television. Radio formatting tends to reduce waste in the audience desired in a media buy.

Radio stations sell time by appealing to the advertisers need for concentrated, narrow demographics. By judging the format used by a station, and analyzing the rating demographic data, radio buys can be made extremely cost-efficient. Radio is effective to reach defined geographic targets. It is a localized medium and concentrates in a tight geographic region. Although advertising time is sold on a limited number of network radio programs, the vast majority of radio time purchased for political campaigns is bought on a spot basis by selecting specific radio media markets. The following is a brief overview of different formats to help focus on the advantages of using radio for campaign advertising.
Middle of the Road:
AM station with a powerful signal. Strong on-air personalities. Popular music, news, service features, traffic reports, weather updates, sports coverage or talk shows at night. Audience 35+.
News and Information:
Usually an AM station. Efficient attracting likely voters. Night programs talk shows or sports coverage.
Talk Radio:
Usually an AM station with a highly involved and loyal audience. This type of programming can mix with other formats such as News and Information. Live sports coverage can be featured at night.
Contemporary Hit Radio:
Very popular skew under 35. Adult contemporary is a format is similar to CHR, but attracts slightly older demographics.
Varied Rock Formats:
Usually skew young.
Country and Western:
Demographics relatively broad for radio, but strong ratings in most parts of the country.
Black Formats:
Several variations to the format . Demographics vary tremendously frequently skewing young.
The radio broadcast day is also divided into sections that are called dayparts. Advertising time is placed in dayparts. The following is an overview of radio station dayparts:
AM Drive:
Highest ratings of the day. Reaches people getting ready to go to work and commuters. Most popular personalities are in AM.
High ratings, reaches people at work and at home.
PM Drive:
Good ratings, reaches commuters and people at home.
Evening: Includes sports and talk programs. Lower reach. Older listeners late at night.
Cable Television
In planning and buying advertising, cable TV is similar to radio. Both media require high frequency levels to influence the voter, and feature specialized programming designed to attract a defined segmented audience. Cable TV can be bought nationally from cable networks. This is an excellent way to reach a tightly defined target market throughout the country. Buying cable directly on local systems is a good method for reaching a tight geographic area. Many towns and cities are tied together by a cable interconnect; a group of cable systems that are linked together permitting a commercial to be aired simultaneously over several different systems.

Much of the programming on cable television is based on the concept of narrow casting, content designed to attract the special interests of a specific, or narrowly defined group. This allows the media buyer to efficiently reach a target audience. The following brief descriptions of cable program services are intended to provide an overview of the options for placing political commercials on cable television.
Entertainment Sports Programming Network (ESPN):
Sports programming including live sports coverage, features, and sports news programs. Excellent for reaching men.
Cable News Network (CNN) and CNN Headline News:
24 hours of newscasts, live special events, panel shows, and newsmaker interviews. The most effective channel for reaching opinion leaders, likely voters, and an upscale audience.
Business news and stock reports. Political talk programs at night are excellent for reaching high involvement voters.
Two general interest channels with broad demographics. A good alternative for network TV.
The Nashville Network (TNN):
Country and western music programming and related features. Wide demographics attracting rural, western, and southern audiences.
MTV and VH-1:
Forget them for reaching voters over 35.
Premium pay channels such as HBO, Showtime, and Disney:
They are not available for advertising.

Commercial Formats

All stations accept 30-second and 60-second commercials. The 30-second spot is the workhorse for campaign advertising. On television, 60-second spots are an effective way of communicating a deeper message to the voter, but cost twice the amount for the same time slot as a 30-second ad. For the same budget, this means only half as many rating points can be purchased for 60's over 30-second spots.

Stations will occasionally accept 10-second political TV spots. The cost for this format when compared to a 30-second ad will vary according to the pricing policy of each station. Limited in use, 10's can help create candidate name recognition. They can be taken directly out of a 30-second spot and used to increase frequency and reinforce the longer message.

Half hour infomercials have become a popular format. The major problem associated with buying this time is the limited number of available time slots offered by most TV stations.

On radio, 60-second commercials are actually more cost effective than are 30's. The cost difference between a 30 and a 60 on radio is not doubled. The actual percentage will vary between stations, but 60-second spots usually cost only between 25 and 35 percent more than the same 30.

Planning the Media Buy

While evaluating each daypart, the media buyer must balance three factors. The first is reach, or how many different viewers were exposed to the advertising message. When the same audience member sees the ad more than once, then the message is building frequency, or repetition. Frequency indicates the number of times the viewer is exposed to the spot. Finally, the cost-efficiency of different dayparts, programs, and stations must be considered.

The different television dayparts need to be evaluated for the media buy. The early morning network news/information programs (Today, Good Morning America, CBS This Morning) and early local newscasts are excellent for reaching likely voters. The cost per thousand and per point for older demographic groups is excellent during this daypart and the audience remains relatively consistent throughout the year making this a dependable buy.

In the late afternoon between 4pm and 6pm is the daypart known as afternoon fringe. These programs are a mix of talk shows and sitcoms targeted at women. The most desirable time periods for political ads are news blocks at noon, early evening, and late night. News programs reach likely voters and opinion leaders, two key targets for most campaigns. Prime access, the daypart following the early evening news and preceding primetime, is a cost-efficient segment of the broadcast schedule which secures high audience ratings. These programs consist of game shows, tabloid programs, and sit-coms all of which deliver strong ratings and desirable demographics with efficient costs per point.

Primetime is the daypart programmed by the networks for their affiliates. Time is sold by the local stations in time slots which are adjacent to (between) network programs. Primetime programs generally reach large numbers of viewers and have a prestige factor impressing the viewer.

The media buy begins with the selection of specific programs and stations. All decisions for how many spots to place within each program or daypart are done on a week by week basis. An advertising flight consists of a specified number of weeks. Usually the buyer will build the media buy on a weekly platform. At this point the number of ads placed in each program begins to determine the frequency, or total number of time slots purchased for the candidate's ads. Gross rating points for the schedule can be determined for each station, various markets, and on a statewide basis.

Radio buying varies from TV in that spot frequency (how many time slots are purchased on each station) and total ratings are used to weigh the strength of the buy. The number of time slots needed on a station to influence the listener is a matter of opinion. Radio is a medium which requires substantial frequency to achieve the goals of an advertiser. Most advertisers feel that 18 spots a week on a station is an absolute minimum necessary to have any impact on the listener. Most buys will run 24 to over 50 ads a week per station. 24 spots a week is a solid average radio buy. At least three stations should be bought to insure satisfactory reach of the target audience. Many markets have a radio station that dominates the ratings for the desired target demographics. This station is usually bought heavily.

Ratings are not available for the channels and programming on local cable TV systems. Placement decisions for cable TV should be based on the target audience. The type of programming and the channels being considered for the buy is matched to the demographics, interests, and geographics of the audience which the campaign wants to reach.


Television Network Advertising Time

Program National
Per Spot
60 Minutes 13 $200,000
Mad About You 12 $270,000
ABC Sunday Night Movie 13 $200,000
CBS Sunday Movie 11 $150,000
Murphy Brown 13 $335,000
Chicago Hope 13 $265,000
Roseanne 12 $215,000
Home Improvement 16 $475,000
NYPD Blue 15 $265,000
Ellen 12 $235,000
Prime Time Live 12 $200,000
Dateline NBC 11 $110,000
48 Hours 8 $100,000
Friends 20 $400,000
ER 24 $390,000
Picket Fences 7 $100,000
20/20 15 $195,000
Homicide, Life on the Streets 9 $125,000
Sisters 7 $130,000
Network Morning News 4 $35,000
Program National
Per Spot

Cable Television Network Advertising Time

Average Cost For 1 Network Cable Spot$3,000-$5,000
Average Cost For 1 Premium Network Cable Spot $10,000

Spot Television Advertising Time

MarketDaypartAverage Rating Cost-Per-Point
New YorkNews 11 $580
Access 10 $500
Prime15 $1,125
Los Angeles News 11 $600
Access 10 $610
Prime 15 $1,150
ChicagoNews 11 $330
Access 10 $300
Prime 15 $480
Washington, DC News 11 $215
Access10 $240
Prime 15 $425
Dallas News 11 $240
Access 10 $180
Prime 15 $350
SeattleNews 11 $155
Access 10 $140
Prime 15 $310
Miami News 11 $200
Access 10 $170
Prime 15 $400
Denver News 11 $110
Access 10 $110
Prime 15 $180
Phoenix News11 $165
Access 10 $150
Prime 15 $205
Kansas City News 11 $85
Access 10 $80
Prime 15 $135

Spot Radio Advertising Time

MarketAvg. Weekly Buy
New York Light$45,000
Med./heavy $90,000
Los Angeles Light $55,000
Med./heavy $110,000
Chicago Light $33,000
Med./heavy $65,000
Washington, DC Light $33,000
Med./heavy $66,000
Dallas Light $27,000
Med./heavy $54,000
Seattle Light $22,000
Med./heavy $43,000
Miami Light $17,000
Med./heavy $33,000
Denver Light $13,000
Med./heavy $25,000
Phoenix Light $11,000
Med./heavy $22,000
Kansas City Light $6,000
Med./heavy $13,000
Light buy = 72 spots market total Med./heavy buy =144 spots market total [RETURN TO TOP OF TABLE]


Last Modified on 11.22.96

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