Dissecting the GSTV – Obama ads thing

August 8, 2008 by Dave Haynes

Ad Age has taken a run at dissecting what happened with Gas Station TV’s decision this week not to run ads from US democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s campaign.

The Obama campaign says the ads were refused because they were critical of biog oil – which operates most or all of the venues where GSTV is installed.

GSTV says it doesn’t run political spots and and never had an insertion order anyway.

The truth is somewhere in the middle, one strongly suspects.

Reports Ad Age:

The Obama campaign yesterday morning sent out a release claiming that one of the candidate’s energy-policy ads, “Priorities,” would run on GSTV. But it wasn’t long before GSTV CEO David Leider tried to set the record straight, insisting that the company never received an insertion order and had decided not to accept political advertising of any nature, in keeping with company policy not to run “polarizing” material.

Skirting controversy
GSTV’s editorial policy states that it “will never promote a particular view on controversial matters of public policy or political or industrial controversy.” The network, which runs news content from CBS News, also refrains from showing stories involving murder or guns. “It’s a G-rated network,” said Mr. Leider.

That didn’t sit well with the Obama campaign, which fired off a hard-hitting statement attacking GSTV.

In it, the Obama campaign’s communications director in Florida, Mark Bubriski, had this to say: “Once again, the oil companies and their friends are standing with Senator McCain, the candidate for president who is proposing to offer them a $4 billion tax cut. It looks like Gas Station TV doesn’t want the American people to know about Senator Obama’s plan to offer working families a $1,000 energy rebate that would be funded by a tax on oil company profits. The oil companies have taken sides in this race, and they are standing with John McCain.” The ads were to have run in Florida.

The campaign also claimed to have e-mails — between representatives of ABC National Sales, Obama ad agency GMMB and GSTV — proving that GSTV initially signed off on the ad. According to an e-mail from a Dee Parker at ABC National Sales, “GSTV owners have signed off on this” and that it has “approved the spot.”

Ms. Parker referred inquiries to the Obama campaign and GSTV. GMMB did the same.

E-mail forensics
According to GSTV, “The e-mail chain provided by the Obama campaign is 100% inaccurate. GSTV never viewed or approved the spot to air nor did GSTV receive an insertion order or payment for a media buy.”

Indeed, in the one e-mail from GSTV provided by the Obama camp, someone identified as Jeff Hupp writes that he could have the ad turned around in an hour after receiving an insertion order, but that he had yet to receive such an order. According to GSTV, Mr. Hupp is a VP-business operations. A spokeswoman for GSTV said it doesn’t have a direct relationship with ABC National Sales, but does partner with ESPN for content.

In a lengthy formal statement, GSTV went on to say that the “campaigns that contacted Gas Station TV did not receive approval to move forward with a media buy on our network. Gas Station TV must approve any ads running on the network and no political ads were sent to Gas Station TV for review and approval. … No invoices indicating approval from Gas Station TV to run a political ad were developed and at no time were related financial transactions completed with Gas Station TV and its partners.”

The company also made it clear it wasn’t taking Mr. McCain’s side, saying it wouldn’t take political ads “regardless of content or political party affiliation.”

In a phone interview, Mr. Leider also insisted that the reasons for rejecting political ads had as much to do with ad clutter as anything else. “We’re providing our traditional clients a non-cluttered environment,” he said. “It’s just best for our consumers and our advertisers to stay out of it.” Indeed, some of the company’s ad clients had been asking if their messages would be crowded out of the market by political ads this election season — as could happen in numerous TV markets throughout the country as presidential and congressional ads start to take over much of the airtime.

GSTV reaches about 17.5 million consumers each month (on more than 5,500 pumps in more than 400 cities) who are practically sitting ducks for advertising. As Mr. Leider likes to say, “They’re tied to the screen with an 8-foot rubber hose.” Talk about a captive audience.

Volatile issue
With energy policy perhaps the hottest issue of the campaign season, gas-pump messaging could have been a strong play. What better place to accuse your opponent of being the primary cause for high gas prices? Mr. Leider said that a “number of campaigns have approached us.”

With any number of candidates clamoring for access, it’s not too hard to see how that four or five minutes at the pump would be completely eclipsed by political ads. And while it may have been tempting to go for the political money, it’s quite obvious there is no such thing as an objective or non-polarizing political ad.

I’ve run networks and totally understand the tap dancing Leider would have had to do if it ran ads slamming the oil industry, and then had to field calls from the EVPs of retail store operations for the oil companies where hehas screens. Lots of networks have declared or undeclared rules around what’s OK and what’s pretty much suicidal to run.

Having now seen the ad, I’m not sure why oil companies would get upset about the spot, which is pretty tame. 

I’m not sure, though, I’m buying the idea that GSTV is staying the heck clear of political advertising because of issues of clutter in the ad wheel. VERY few media companies are shooting the lights out with ad sales right now, in digital networks or pretty much any medium, so turning down a big gush of ad revenue this summer and fall would take some real stones.

The real story here, though, as an industry guy laid out to me yesterday, is the message this sends to big media planners who decided to take a leap of faith and try a big buy on a non-traditional platform … and then watched it all go sideways. It might be a while before they try again.

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