Groups Vie For Trump’s TV Attention
WASHINGTON—An ethanol group in a high-stakes battle with the oil industry devised its television advertising strategy with a single viewer in mind: President Trump.
Its 30-second commercial with an Iowa corn farmer arguing for a higher percentage of ethanol in gasoline has been in rotation on Fox News since July.
“We know he watches, so this is a good way for him to see it’s something the heartland wants,” said Leigh Claffey, spokeswoman for Growth Energy, which last week began running a new ad noting Mr. Trump’s commitment to the issue.
The group’s opponents have crowded onto Fox’s airwaves, too: “President Trump,” implores the narrator of an American Petroleum Institute ad, “don’t risk harming consumers” by increasing the ethanol mixed into fuel.
On Tuesday, Mr. Trump will travel to Iowa, the nation’s biggest corn-producing state. He is expected to announce ethanol policy changes favorable to the industry, delivering on a campaign promise while also stepping into a long-running fight between the Farm Belt and Big Oil.
The White House didn’t respond to a request to comment.
The competing ads represent an effort to grab the attention of the world’s most powerful TV viewer, and a belief by Washington’s influence industry that Mr. Trump can be swayed by what he sees on TV.
His frequent tweets about Fox News programs leave little doubt that he tunes in regularly to the station’s morning show, “Fox & Friends,” as well Sean Hannity’s show at night. He is also a regular viewer of Lou Dobbs, who hosts a show on Fox Business Network.
“It’s absolutely true that a lot of people are focused on the audience of one and how to influence the audience of one,” said Michael Steel, a managing director at Washington-based Hamilton Place Strategies and a longtime GOP communications adviser.
Two spokeswomen for Fox News didn’t respond to requests to comment. 21st Century FoxInc., parent of the Fox Networks Group, shares common ownership with The Wall Street Journal’s owner, News Corp.
The efforts to get the president’s TV attention go beyond ethanol. Creators of an ad supporting U.S. steelworkers were pleasantly surprised when Mr. Trump tweeted about the issue just minutes after the spot aired on “Fox & Friends” in early March. The ad – a mashup of footage of Mr. Trump speaking to the issue – ran for more than a week at a cost of $250,000. Mr. Trump during that same time announced tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.
“It certainly helped that the president had a reminder of what he committed to do,” said Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing.
In a July memo to clients, lobbying firm CGCN Group noted the importance of television as a means to reach both the president and his base of “middle-class and blue-collar voters in middle America.”
“It is widely rumored that Trump pays particularly close attention to programs like Hannity and Lou Dobbs Tonight to measure the pulse of this key demographic,” the memo reads.
Ad revenue for the programs Mr. Trump watches most closely is on the rise, with Hannity ticking up to $18.8 million in April to June of this year, compared with $17.5 million in the second quarter of 2016, according to Kantar Media, an advertising tracking service. “Fox & Friends” made $22 million in ad revenue in the second quarter of this year, compared with $15.7 million in the period of 2016, Kantar Media says.
The interest ads follow Mr. Trump around, with several strategists saying they buy slots local to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., when he is there and in the New York area when he visits his golf retreat in Bedminster, N.J.
Strategists also say they target early hours on MSNBC and CNN, networks Mr. Trump has publicly maligned but nonetheless keeps tabs on. Mr. Trump has called NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” “boring and unfunny” but special interests have sought his ear there, too.
When House Speaker Paul Ryan sought to include a border adjustment tax in his sweeping tax overhaul last year, the National Retail Federation cut a parody infomercial aired during SNL and on “Fox & Friends.”
“We were trying to prevent the president and Paul Ryan from getting on the same plan,” said David French, senior vice president of the retail federation. “We wanted to create a counterargument for the president to consider. The goal was to get it seen by the president and some of his influencers.”
Mr. Ryan eventually scuttled the border adjustment tax idea, saying at the time that the robust influence operation against it played a role. Mr. Trump’s opponents have also used television to reach him. In late October last year, billionaire Democrat Tom Steyer kicked off his drive to gin up public support for impeaching the president by advertising it on “Fox & Friends.”
The president took note of it, writing on Twitter at 6:58 a.m. Eastern time the day the ad made its debut, “Wacky & totally unhinged Tom Steyer, who has been fighting me and my Make America Great Again agenda from the beginning, never wins elections!”
Kevin Mack, lead strategist for Need to Impeach, said the group placed the ads on the Fox show “for the sole purpose of having Donald Trump see them.”
President Trump tunes in regularly to ‘Fox & Friends.’ From left, Steve Doocy, Ainsley Earhardt and Brian Kilmeade, the Fox News show’s co-hosts.