First salvo fired in possible TV ad war on gay marriage

The first trickle of television airtime has been purchased in what could be a torrent of issue ads this year involving a proposed referendum to ban same-sex mariage.

Locally based Advance America Inc., a conservative group headed by attorney Eric Miller, this month spent $14,050 for 23 spots on top-rated WTHR-TV Channel 13 and $6,550 for 29 spots on WISH-TV Channel 8, station records show.

The ads between Jan. 8 and Jan. 14 sported the images of legislators under a stormy sky. They were said to be trying to stop the Indiana General Assembly from allowing Hoosiers to vote next November to amend the constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman.

“Seven legislators should not stop the people from voting,” says the announcer.

Advance America spent between $100 per ad during the early mornings on WTHR to $1,250 per spot during the station’s 6 p.m. newscast. Besides WISH, it was not clear Wednesday morning whether other local stations had run referendum ads; WXIN-TV Fox59 and WRTV-TV Channel 6 have not reported any related data on ad buys.

Miller couldn’t be reached for comment. Advance America, not to be confused with a similarly named chain of payday loan shops, was previously known as Citizens Concerned for the Constitution.

The state Legislature is deliberating on whether to approve the referendum for November’s ballot. Recent hearings at the Statehouse brought emotional testimony from people opposed to the measure and from advocates of traditional marriage.

The latter group includes Miller’s Advance America, as well as a number of religious and traditional family groups, some of which are planning an ad campaign coordinated through the Indiana Family Institute.

Groups on both sides of the issue remain tight-lipped about their media buying plans, including Rick Sutton, president of Indiana Equality Action, which supports gay marriages.

“I think you’ll see all the typical [messaging] you see in a gubernatorial campaign. And it will not be small,” Sutton said.

Micah Clark, executive director of the American Family Association of Indiana, said previously that he wouldn’t be surprised to see opponents spend $15 million or more, based on media spends for battles in other states.

Veteran media buyers say television stations and other media outlets could enjoy lucrative ad revenue between now and November if the Legislature approves a vote at the ballot box. Money would likely flood Indiana from advocacy groups around the country.

But referendum votes are uncommon in Indiana, especially one involving such a combative issue. As such, “we have no way of knowing any more than anybody else what’s going to happen with this” in ad revenue, said Scott Hainey, director of creative services at WISH-TV.

Many groups in the marriage debate are holding off, for now—waiting to see if the Legislature clears the way for a vote. Hainey also noted that groups are likely to make use of social media and other forms of messaging.

Indiana Equality Action so far has relied primarily on social media and forms of grassroots messaging to muster its forces, Sutton said.

So-called issue ads have been very, very good for local TV stations in recent years, helping offset the loss of juicy candidate ads during election seasons.

For example, in the first half of 2013, WTHR booked more than $85,000 from 131 gun control ads from Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the brainchild of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Issue ads from six different groups—addressing gun control, immigration policy, education, transit and free markets—during the first half of last year brought WTHR about $372,600.

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