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Mike Bloomberg and Donald Trump’s dueling Super Bowl ads

Why both campaigns spent $11 million for 60 seconds of airtime.

Mike Bloomberg Makes Speech On Affordable Housing and Homelessness
Presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg onstage at a recent campaign event.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

This Sunday, there will be two competitions happening as the 2020 Super Bowl unfolds. The San Francisco 49ers will, of course, face the Kansas City Chiefs for the Super Bowl 54 title.

But there will also be an undercard fight of sorts: President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg have both spent millions on competing ads that will air during the Big Game.

Ads for presidential candidates have aired in some local markets during the Super Bowl in previous years; in 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign bought local airtime in 24 states. But the Bloomberg and Trump ads mark the first time political campaigns have bought time for a coveted and very expensive nationwide commercial slot.

Bloomberg, the former New York mayor who made a late entry into the Democratic primary in November, put $11 million of his own money — out of a personal fortune that Forbes estimates at almost $61 billion — behind a 60-second ad about gun violence, which has been a key issue in his campaign so far. (The 2008 Obama ad, by contrast, cost $250,000, according to reporting at the time.)

The ad highlights the story of George Kemp Jr., who was shot and killed at age 20, as told by his mother, Calandrian Kemp. “I know Mike is not afraid of the gun lobby,” Calandrian Kemp says. “They’re scared of him … and they should be.”

The president, meanwhile, opted for two ads clocking in at 30 seconds apiece, and is using his airtime to reiterate a 2020 reelection message he’s already previewed: “Whether you love me or hate me you have to vote for me,” he told voters in New Hampshire this summer, because “the United States right now has the hottest economy anywhere in the world.”

One of the two ads, titled “Stronger, Safer, More Prosperous,” reels off statistics to support that claim: “Best wage growth I think we’ve seen in almost a decade,” a television anchor intones. “The unemployment rate sinking to a 49-year low,” another voice adds. “Unemployment for Hispanics hit an all-time record low,” the spot concludes before cutting back to Trump.

The first Trump ad has already been released on YouTube, though that didn’t stop the president from leveraging it into a fundraising opportunity too. A Trump 2020 campaign email sent out Thursday beseeched supporters that “To view our ad TODAY, please contribute ANY AMOUNT to our Official Trump Super Bowl Ad Blitz Fund.”

A second 30-second ad, the Trump campaign told the New York Times, “will be seen by the world for the first time when it actually airs” during the Super Bowl.

Notably, both ads released so far eschew mention of the candidates’ opponents.

Nonetheless, a Bloomberg campaign spokesperson told the Times that “the biggest point is getting under Trump’s skin,” a goal the former New York mayor seems to have already achieved by drawing the president’s ire on Twitter.

Both candidates’ big-ticket ad buys are just the latest example of the incredible amount of ad spending going on ahead of the 2020 campaign. According to FiveThirtyEight, Bloomberg has already spent $224 million on TV advertising alone, and a total of $275 million including radio and digital — though that’s still only a fraction of a percent of his total net worth, which has actually increased since he entered the race.

Without a competitive primary challenge, Trump has spent less so far; however, ABC News reports that his campaign has still poured $52 million into ads, with a heavy focus on digital ad spending on Facebook and Google.

The $275 million Bloomberg has spent is more than the other top four candidates in the race have raised combined, according to OpenSecrets.

Bloomberg’s Super Bowl ad buy is more than Sen. Bernie Sanders has spent on TV advertising in total.

Of course, the real question is whether all that ad spending will make a difference. Ad agency executive Margaret Johnson told the Wall Street Journal that she’s not so sure.

“The whole country wants to tune out of politics and laugh during the Super Bowl,” Johnson said in an interview with the Journal. “People watching the game just want to be entertained.”

A top Bloomberg adviser, Howard Wolfson, thinks otherwise: “I think it’s going to stop people in their tracks,” he told the New York Times. “Frankly, amid the dancing raisins and souped-up cars, a mother speaking fundamental and powerful truths about her experience and her son’s loss will draw an awful lot of attention, deservedly so.”

But even if it doesn’t, it’s an easy gamble for someone as wealthy as Bloomberg to make. According to the Washington Post, the $11 million Super Bowl ad set him back about as much as a large Domino’s pizza would a median-net-worth American household.

The Super Bowl is the biggest day of the year for many more traditional advertisers too. On Sunday, both candidates’ ads will be competing not just with each other, but with Chris Evans’s Boston accent (by Hyundai), Sam Elliott’s rendition of “Old Town Road” (courtesy of Doritos), and more.