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Donald Trump To Finally Go Live With Television Ads

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Here's another change the Trump campaign is making this week. He is finally going on the air with TV commercials. Since the end of the Republican primary season, Trump had not aired any commercials. As NPR's Scott Detrow reports, Trump's late start has many experts shaking their heads.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Tune into the Olympics on NBC this week, and you'll hear a lot of this.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Rio's Sugarloaf Mountain, situated on the gateway to Guanabara Bay - it overlooks the city's...

DETROW: But also this...

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HILLARY CLINTON: I'm Hillary Clinton, and I approve this message.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: How do we make the economy work for everyone? Hillary Clinton's plan starts here.

DETROW: According to The Associated Press, Hillary Clinton's campaign is spending nearly $14 million to run TV ads during an event where tens of millions of people tune in every night. As for Trump, there's nothing. Sure, a handful of super PACs are airing some ads on Trump's behalf, but up until now, the Trump campaign hasn't spent a single dollar on TV advertising in the general election. That's after a primary season where he aired far fewer ads than his opponents.

ERIKA FRANKLIN FOWLER: We just have never seen anything like it in modern campaigning. It's unprecedented.

DETROW: Erika Franklin Fowler directs the Weslyan Media Project which tracks and studies political advertising. She says TV ads aren't everything in political campaigns, but they matter.

FOWLER: And especially in a competitive election cycle, advertising is one of the easiest ways in which you talk to the most amount of people.

DETROW: Hillary Clinton's campaign has been airing ads for two months. Right now they're running in states like Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Trump's still on our TVs all the time actually. He's dominated news coverage and crowded out opponents since the day he entered the race. Early in the primaries, Trump bragged to Fox business that he didn't need to run ads.

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DONALD TRUMP: It's almost like if I put ads in on top of the program, it would be too much. It would be too much Trump.

DETROW: Several groups have said Trump's press has been worth billions of dollars in advertising, but plenty of that press has been negative, especially in recent weeks.

FOWLER: He could use some polished messaging on air right now, which is exactly the kind of messaging that professional advertising provides.

DETROW: Republican campaign strategist Rob Jesmer spent several years running the GOP Senate Campaign Committee. I asked him what he would have said to a Republican campaign that had avoided the airwaves.

ROB JESMER: I can't even think about someone who hasn't - this has ever occurred. So I just - it never would have been allowed to happen. But I would have said that this is total incompetence.

DETROW: Jesmer says typically campaigns start mapping out their TV strategy six months ahead of time.

JESMER: You do a poll and say, OK, these are the people we need. These are the markets we need. These are the people in those markets.

DETROW: And then he says you figure out what channels and even what shows those voters watch so you can make sure your commercials are in just the right spot. TV stations aren't allowed to hike up the price for political campaigns, and they have to offer competing groups equal time. But Jesmer says that's a pretty relative term.

DETROW: But they're not required to give - just because you're on "Jeopardy!" they have to give you "Jeopardy!" They have to give you something comparable, and you know, comparable is somewhat in the eye of the beholder and, in this case, the station.

DETROW: So if Clinton and Democratic PACs have reserved all the key airtime like they've been doing for months, it's probably going to be hard for the Trump campaign to run ads in prime slots. The Trump campaign says it will begin running commercials in Florida, Ohio, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Those are all key states for Trump. There are also states where polls show him trailing Hillary Clinton. And maybe not coincidentally, they're also states where Clinton has been running ads for a while now. Scott Detrow, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.