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We watched political ads all day
If this were the main way you engaged with politics, you’d hate it, too.
No one likes political ads on TV, but they’re still a mainstay for serious candidates in big-money races.
But we’re two Millennials who only ever stream TV. In our day jobs as political reporters, we’re quicker to pull up a candidate’s campaign finance forms or financial disclosure statements than their websites or ads.
We often miss the TV ads altogether. We see the viral ones, but the every day, unavoidable, monotonous, repetitive messages pounding into your brains on the local channels — we try to avoid it all.
But that means we’re missing out on the main way lots of people interact with politics.
Political ads — on TV, in the mail, via text and online — are formative to voters’ opinions of candidates. They’re the first sign that election season is upon us. TV ads could be the only thing resembling research on the candidates that some voters do before filling out their ballots.
So we decided to binge a full day of local TV to get a taste of what your average viewer sees every day, regardless of what time they tune in. There was no single hour of TV that escaped the political ad frenzy.
We had no clear methodology for this project. It’s wildly unscientific. We flipped through all the local TV stations to try to find the ad breaks.
We watched in shifts: Hank took 6-10 a.m., Rachel 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Hank 2-6 p.m. and Rachel 6-10:30 p.m.
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6 a.m.: Hank wakes up early
I plug in the bunny ears I bought yesterday and turn to Channel 12’s 6 a.m. newscast. The first ad I see, before the show starts, is from gubernatorial contender Kari Lake, who has been struggling to keep up on the airwaves against her wealthy competitor, Karrin Taylor Robson. In the ad, Lake calls her opponent a “real RINO” who’s trying to buy the election, and touts her own endorsement from Donald Trump.
I’m surprised to see Lake’s ad first. Is it just good timing, or has Lake found the money to once again dominate TV, as she did during her long career in local news?
But it turns out that after that 5:58 showing, I don’t hear from Lake again in this four-hour shift. In comparison, I’d catch no fewer than five ads for Robson, all attacking Lake as a phony who once supported mass amnesty. Lake’s presence on the air was just as strong as third-tier gubernatorial candidates Paola Tulliani Zen, who also had only one ad during that four-hour bloc. The splashy graphics and sound effects on that one resembled something of a cross between a late-night discount furniture ad and a Saul Goodman production.
Polling indicates that Robson is closing Lake’s lead fast, and Lake being M.I.A. from the airwaves during the crucial first week of early voting is not a good sign for her.
7 a.m.: U.S. Senate or bust
It’s abundantly clear which race will dominate Arizona’s airwaves: the U.S. Senate. By 7 a.m., the daily air battle between Republicans Jim Lamon and Blake Masters is already raging. Masters’ benefactor, billionaire Peter Thiel, provides Masters’ firepower through his Saving Arizona PAC.
Lamon’s ads center Masters’ early writings in favor of amnesty. The ads from Masters’ benefactor accuse Lamon of having made his millions off Chinese slave labor and of being “China’s man in the U.S. Senate” in what one MSNBC commentator called “arguably the most racist political ad released this campaign season.”
Trump looms large in the race: Masters’ ads argue while Lamon desperately wanted Trump’s endorsement, the former president backed him instead because he knows Masters is strong on border issues. Lamon argues Trump made a mistake in endorsing Masters.
Meanwhile, Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, who doesn’t face a primary challenger, has so much money he’s largely able to stay above the petty fray with incessant ads painting himself as a commonsense centrist focused on getting things done.
While the Republican candidates are still forming a circular firing squad for the primary, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has its sights trained on Kelly. One of the most consistent ads shows Joe Biden getting down on one knee to propose to Kelly while a narrator declares that Kelly loves Biden and votes for his agenda.
This is exactly why outside spending groups like the NRSC exist: They stay focused on the larger war while candidates battle it out in the primary. And because outside groups are one step removed from the candidates, they’re much more likely to get down in the muck and launch attacks that candidates won’t for fear of blowback.
I even catch an ad for Mick McGuire, a low-budget, longshot Republican candidate in the Senate race. McGuire is the only Republican in the race willing to acknowledge Joe Biden won the 2020 election in Arizona fair and square, and in his only TV slot, he channels the late Barry Goldwater. It’s not as good as this video he put online, though.
8 a.m.: Who’s paying for these ads and why?
As the morning drags on, candidates we had forgotten about start showing up.
Two Republican candidates for attorney general are getting regular play in the rotation — Dawn Grove and Rodney Glassman. Both ads are of the forgettable and predictable variety: Shots of the candidates standing with police or in hardhats touring a manufacturing business. A familiar voiceover regurgitating their bonafides.
Grove’s ads, though, are all paid for by a corporate independent expenditure committee that can spend unlimited amounts of money in her favor without ever disclosing its donors. The dark money PAC, Americans for Limited Government, has already spent $1.2 million to support her in recent weeks, campaign finance reports show, which is more than Grove’s campaign has spent this entire cycle.
Who is funding the group and why do they like Grove? There’s no way to know.
9 a.m.: Hank hates the local news
After three hours of flipping between the local news channels, it’s becoming tortuous. Not the ads — the morning local news. I haven’t watched three straight hours of morning news in decades, if ever, and I’m surprised by the degree to which it’s driven by viral clips from across the country. Today’s clips include a large wave crashing a Hawaiian beachfront wedding, a bus driving though rain and flooding in New York City and a van collapsing into a sinkhole in the Bronx.
The same stories play on repeat every hour or less. A firefighter injured his shoulder. A house burned down. Someone got shot in Tolleson. I get a weather update every 12 minutes. Still the same: It’s hot. There is no good reason to watch more than an hour of news per day.
I only learn one bit of political news from my four-hour binge of TV: Tempe dropped its misdemeanor charges against right-wing provocateur Jennifer Harrison so the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office could consider felony charges after she pepper sprayed a crowd of abortion rights protesters. But now I also know that Bennifer is back and a Kardashian is dating a Phoenix Sun (or was dating a Sun?) and an intruder broke into Drake’s house.
10 a.m.: Rachel wakes up at a civilized hour
Perhaps because I don’t watch live TV unless it’s to catch “Saturday Night Live,” I assumed the “Today Show” would have tons of local political ads. There were none. I instead learned about various medications, toilet paper, trash bags and York Peppermint Patties.
It quickly became clear that Arizona political candidates want their ads placed in the local news, which makes sense. Voters probably watch the local news.
I finally saw a political ad at 10:13 on Channel 3, during a local show that taught me how to slice meat. It was from Mark Kelly, whose ad about members of Congress trading stocks I could recite from memory by the end of the day.
And I saw an ad from the Arizona Citizens Clean Election Commission, which showed a man wandering through a maze, directing voters to Clean Elections for unbiased voting information.
By the end of my first hour, I had seen just a few ads: Glassman, Kelly, Lamon. I’d seen more people offering to buy my house. But I did get to see Lerner & Rowe, who I interviewed back in 2020 for a story about how local businesses get pushed off the air during election season.
11 a.m.: Congressional crapshoot
When I watch TV, I usually mute commercials. Before streaming, I’d bop around from channel to channel during commercials rather than sit through them for a few minutes. But today, I was doing the opposite: channel surfing to find commercial breaks.
I was introduced to several congressional candidates I couldn’t vote for, like Eli Crane, a veteran and small business owner who’s running in Congressional District 2. The ad, which talks about Crane’s combat experience, is paid for by the conservative American Dream Federal Action PAC. I don’t live in CD2, and I didn’t see ads for other candidates in the crowded GOP primary for that seat. I also, unfortunately, didn’t see Crane’s own ad, where he gets a “We The People” tattoo on camera.
GOP candidate Elijah Norton, who’s running against U.S. Rep. David Schweikert in CD1, popped up with an ad that contained a message many of the GOP candidates recited: there’s an “invasion” at the U.S.-Mexico border. Another Norton ad dubs his opponent “Shady Schweikert.” I also do not live in CD1.
And then came Kelly Cooper, who’s running in the GOP primary in CD4 in hopes of ousting U.S. Rep. Greg Stanton come November. In one commercial break, I saw an ad from Cooper detailing his biography and positions, then later saw one from him attacking his GOP rival Tanya Wheeless as a RINO lobbyist.
As you probably guessed by now, I don’t live in CD4, either.
12 p.m.: This clinic invites lots of questions
By now, I’d seen Lamon’s ad about fake Blake, which shows Masters drinking a comically small bottle of water, more times than I saw an ad for a local erectile dysfunction clinic — and I’d seen the ED ad an untold number of times.
The ad left me with more questions than answers, and not to get too far into it, but it offered “tune-ups” to the ED procedure and a “special gift” for people. So I had to reach out to the clinic.
Sure, this is a tangent, but it’s also an indication of what a regular viewer is getting all day. They’re seeing a smattering of political ads, many of them negative, in between ads for Botox and erectile dysfunction and home renovation companies. At one point, I saw a Senate Majority PAC ad for Kelly, notably a bald man, followed by an ad for a bank that talked about giving a loan to a hair loss company.
It’s easy to just tune all the ads out because they’re absolutely annoying, so candidates are trying to catch eyeballs with something a bit different. But many of the political ads are repetitive, using focus-grouped phrases about a few key topics, like the border and inflation.
1 p.m.: Candidate double-shots
The 1 p.m. hour was pretty dry for political ads, so I happily watched Drew Barrymore’s daytime talk show for a while.
For the second time that day, though, I noticed a strategy: A candidate will place an ad at the beginning of a commercial break and at the end, bookending the break with their name. Grove, the AG candidate, did it in an earlier time block, and Cooper did it just before 2 p.m. on Fox 10.
2 p.m.: Wait, this is on TV?
I’m looking for local news as I reluctantly return to the TV and start flipping channels. Instead, I found Real America’s Voice and Newsmax2, which I didn't realize were actual channels people could just find on their TVs. That explains a lot about where we are as a country right now. I settled in for “Steve Bannon’s War Room1.”
I hope this is where I’ll find the truly weird political ads I seek. Instead, they’re all ads for the station.
I flip to Newsmax and catch a fawning interview with Lauren Boebert. Before she was elected to Congress from Colorado, she was flipping burgers (which she also describes as “serving the community”) and studying the Constitution, she says. I get ads for allergy medications, law firms doing class action cases against hernia mesh manufacturers and death insurance, but no candidates.
3 p.m.: Phone > TV
I get a call about a story I’ve been chasing down for the last few days. It turns out the story is a nothingburger, but I’m thankful for the excuse to talk to someone for an hour and not watch any more alt-right TV.
4 p.m.: Democrats have primaries, too
By this time, Katie Hobbs’ ad splicing together news clips about facing death threats following the 2020 election is ubiquitous between local news segments. It leans on her strong issue, the 2020 election, while making her look tough but compassionate. That she awkwardly tacks on a few words about abortion rights, inflation and schools is only slightly jarring.
But I perk up at catching my first ad for Hobbs’ only competitor for the Democratic nomination for governor, Marco Lopez. It’s refreshingly confrontational. He urges Democrats to play offense and take on “Trump Republicans like Kari Lake.” Despite following the outlines of a standard political ad, it somehow stands out. The production is expert, and the way he slips in a handful of words in Spanish really makes it sing.
Hobbs may be winning the polls, but Lopez’s team makes a better commercial.
5 p.m.: Finchem at the front?
I finally catch an ad for a Republican candidate in the crowded secretary of state’s race. It’s from Beau Lane and starts out attacking Rep. Mark Finchem, the Trump-endorsed candidate who’s probably the frontrunner in the race. Lane has Gov. Doug Ducey’s endorsement.
No other GOP candidate for Arizona’s top elections official popped up all day, though both Democratic contenders are on the air.
In the ad, Lane hammers Finchem for sponsoring legislation to enact the National Popular Vote. It was a popular idea among conservatives in the Legislature a few years back, before Trump lost the popular vote. The bill wouldn’t have actually led to President Hillary Clinton, as Lane claims, as it wouldn’t have taken effect until a number of states representing a majority of the electoral college adopted the same thing.
Still, the National Popular Vote bill has been an albatross for some of Arizona’s most conservative lawmakers ever since Trump lost the popular vote in 2016. (Ironically, most Republican lawmakers who lined up behind the idea, Finchem included, did so after their campaign consultant, Constantin Querard, lobbied for the bill at the Legislature.)
6 p.m.: One legislative candidate
Every local TV station tried to convince me their weather team was the best in the Valley during the 6 p.m. news. I haven’t decided who’s right.
I did see a now-familiar character in two different candidates’ ads. Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, showed up in a frequent Robson ad, touting Robson’s border plan over Lake’s, and in an ad for Lamon. Both candidates got the Border Patrol Council’s endorsement.
It wasn’t until this hour that I saw a Masters ad paid for by Masters, though I’d seen plenty supporting him by Saving Arizona PAC. Masters’ own ad features computer-generated migrants crossing the desert in what he calls an “invasion,” as a drone zips by.
At nearly 6:30 p.m., after more than four hours of local TV viewing, I finally saw a legislative candidate, the first and last we’d see all day. Because of how expensive it is to get on TV these days and how large the market is compared to their districts, most legislative candidates don’t bother.
But John Arnold, a small business owner (who is not the same John Arnold that’s executive director of the Arizona Board of Regents and former state budget director), isn’t like the rest. The conservative candidate for Legislative District 4’s ad talks about border security, water, the economy and parental rights. We didn’t see ads for any of the other five GOP contenders in this primary, none of whom are incumbents.
7 p.m.: The coveted Jeopardy slot
The back-to-back showing of “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy” netted lots of political ads. And, perhaps because of over-exposure to the man throughout the day, the winner of Wednesday night’s Wheel looked a whole lot like Lamon. The guy is everywhere. I couldn’t escape him.
After seeing tons of Robson ads in most of the day’s time-blocks, I saw Lake ads during both Wheel and Jeopardy. In one ad, Lake talks about how Robson is a RINO, noting various policies she voted on while a Regent, and says Robson is “trying to buy the election.”
Unrelated, but did you know Steve Harvey, the host of “Family Feud,” also has a show called “Judge Steve Harvey”? He has more jobs than we do!
8 p.m.: It’s not just candidates
Throughout the day, alongside ads for candidates, an issue-based political ad kept popping up.
It targets antitrust legislation, S2992, that would regulate big tech companies, and calls on viewers to contact Kelly and U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema to tell them to oppose the bill.
Those ads came from two different groups: CCIA, a trade association whose members include most large tech companies, and New Democracy, a group that says its mission is to “expand the Democratic Party's appeal across red and purple America.”
The bill isn’t sponsored by Arizona’s senators — it’s from Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. But the ads are running in areas with vulnerable senators, like Arizona, whose opposition to the bill could prove critical, the Washington Post reports.
Aside from the frequent S2992 ads, I saw an ad from Democratic secretary of state candidate Adrian Fontes for the first time this hour, while I saw his Democratic competitor, Reginald Bolding, several times more throughout the day.
9 p.m.: BREAKING
Did you know a firefighter hurt his shoulder on Wednesday? We’d now been told multiple times.
10 p.m.: Turn it off, please
Technically, the experiment was supposed to end at 10 p.m., but the 10 p.m. news runs on every channel, so I stuck around.
The 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. broadcasts were perhaps the most active for political ads. I saw repeats of nearly every ad I saw throughout the day: Lamon, Masters, Norton, Kelly, Hobbs, Grove, Glassman, Crane, S2992, Robson, Lake. And, for the first time, I saw two ads from Abe Hamadeh, the Trump-endorsed candidate for Attorney General.
The weather was still hot as hell, the local weather teams told me. Gone were the ads for medications and home remodels that I’d seen earlier in the day, replaced almost entirely by political ads, with a car commercial thrown in here and there.
For a full day, we interacted with politics the way many Arizonans do: by simply watching TV, with the ads filling in the background noise for our daily soundtrack.
We never want to do it again.
Sans Bannon, who had an ongoing contempt of Congress trial that day.