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Settling In For The NFL's Return? Get Ready For Campaign Ads, Too

An ad for Joe Biden's presidential campaign ran nationally during last Thursday's NFL game.
An ad for Joe Biden's presidential campaign ran nationally during last Thursday's NFL game.

The NFL is back, and as millions of people tune in for the sort of live communal TV event that has been missing through much of the pandemic, they are also getting a dose of presidential politics during the commercial breaks.

On Thursday night, when some 20 million people tuned in to watch the Kansas City Chiefs defeat the Houston Texans, Joe Biden's campaign was there with a minute-long campaign ad. Sixty seconds is a lot of real estate when it comes to the NFL and those ads don't come cheap.

And this is only the beginning. Politics and beer ads will mix all season. A Biden campaign aide confirms to NPR that they already have reservations to run at least one ad nationally during each NFL game between now and Election Day. Tracking firm Advertising Analytics says those prebookings add up to $25 million.

"I've never seen that before in a presidential race," said Ad Analytics' John Link. "That is the first time we've seen something of that magnitude."

Link isn't sure whether the Trump campaign will match that (they didn't on Thursday), but he is expecting it to spend big on ads during football games this fall.

While the Biden campaign's ad was part of the NBC broadcast feed and hit every TV tuned in nationwide, the Trump campaign purchased $1.1 million in ads in 21 local TV markets in swing states, according to Ad Analytics.

In theory, that could have allowed Trump's team to tailor its message to the issues important to individual states and regions. But, on Thursday at least, the Trump campaign aired the same ad about the "great American comeback" in every market. The ad starts with the line "in the race for a vaccine, the finish line is approaching."

During last Thursday's NFL game, the Trump campaign aired this ad in 21 local TV markets in swing states.
/ YouTube
During last Thursday's NFL game, the Trump campaign aired this ad in 21 local TV markets in swing states.

In a way, the return of NFL football is a welcome development for President Trump, long a football fan — another part of pre-pandemic life that is back. But, even as that first game was played, there were constant reminders that nothing is normal, from the socially distanced mostly empty stadium to Kansas City coach Andy Reid's fogged up face shield.

The Biden campaign ad called "Fresh Start" that aired nationally played to the reality that life is not back to normal. "We need to get control over the virus," the narrator says midway through the ad. "Donald Trump failed. Joe Biden will get it done."

In addition to that national buy, Ad Analytics found Biden's campaign also aired seven different ads in 18 local media markets during the game. That means Biden's team was trying different messages for different markets. The local ad targeting can give a sense of the campaign's priorities, and in a way there's not much unexpected. Biden's ads aired in the so-called "blue wall" states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Pennsylvania, plus Florida, North Carolina, Nevada and Arizona. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won two of those states, Nevada and Minnesota.

Meanwhile, Trump's local ads aired in a lot of states he won in 2016: Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and the blue wall states. His campaign also made a buy in Fargo, N.D., which has some overlap with Minnesota, a state Trump is hoping to flip Republican.

The Trump campaign declined to comment for this story. A Biden campaign aide suggested that Trump's campaign is strapped for cash and was trying to cherry pick states that are most critical to his reelection. For the Biden campaign, a national buy is just more efficient, the aide said, because they have so many states on their target list.

It also means people watching football in Texas, for instance, will see his pitch too. According to polling averages, Biden trails narrowly in Texas, a state that is traditionally an easy win for Republicans but has been gradually getting more Democratic. Spending a lot of money targeting Texas wouldn't really make sense for the Biden campaign, but having his ads air there can't hurt when that same ad is also airing in North Carolina, Florida and Michigan.

For Trump, there has been some question about whether his campaign would advertise during NFL games because of his longstanding active campaign against NFL players who kneel for the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality. Already in this nascent season, the calls for racial justice have been loud and clear from league-sponsored advertising to players staying in the locker room during the anthem.

Last month, Trump said he was working to get the NFL restarted "as long as they stand for our national anthem, as long as they honor our flag and our country," Trump said. "If they start kneeling I'm not going to help them much. They might come back but I'm not going to be watching. Neither will a lot of other people."

It's not clear whether he watched, but millions of others did. And with those local ad buys, Trump's campaign was trying to reach them. Kneeling or not, the power of the NFL to reach TV audiences is undeniable.

"The NFL, even pre-Covid, is the most powerful advertising vehicle," said Link. "In some markets, you get Super Bowl-like numbers on a Sunday."

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