Advertising for Political Office Is a Never-Ending Campaign

The following is republished with the permission of the Association of National Advertisers. Find this and similar articles on ANA Newsstand.

By David Ward

Once dubbed the “The Ultimate One Day Sale,” political advertising has morphed into an unending campaign to persuade voters — no longer pegged to the first Tuesday in November but instead more of a weeks- or months-long affair.

“With mail-in voting, absentee ballots, and early voting, the one-day sale has turned into a one-month sale,” says Tobe Berkovitz, associate professor of advertising at Boston University and a political media consultant. “That means the mechanics of when you need to have the voter teed up and ready to go for your candidate have changed dramatically.”

The 2020 political advertising cycle was as turbulent as the election cycle itself, including the decision by Facebook, Google, and Twitter to ban some or all political ads during key pre- and post-election stretches. (In January, Twitter permanently banned President Trump from its platform.)

Despite that, trends from the past few elections held up, including the heavy ad spending on linear TV and digital platforms. Political campaigns spent $4.3 billion on local broadcast TV and $1.5 billion on local cable TV, according to Kantar Media Group/CMAG. Campaigns spent $1.9 billion on online video and $600 million on network TV. There are also the billions spent on social media sites, most notably Facebook.

“Political advertising, from a topline perspective, is directed at the undecided voter. The size of that group can vary and, at times, it’s hard to pinpoint and target.” — John Link, VP of sales and marketing at AdImpact

In addition to ad buys, campaigns also invested heavily in fundraising, in-person get-out-the-vote efforts, and analytics borrowed from traditional CPG marketing that include social listening, ad response tracking, and attribution modeling.

The irony is much of this money was spent identifying and engaging a relatively small segment of the electorate that doesn’t much care about politics.

“Political advertising, from a topline perspective, is directed at the undecided voter,” says John Link, VP of sales and marketing at AdImpact (formerly Advertising Analytics). “The size of that group can vary and, at times, it’s hard to pinpoint and target.”

This unengaged, undecided voter can make generating real-time analytics a challenge. Polling, although an imperfect process, is a good place to start, Link says. “Some campaigns/agencies are also sophisticated enough to follow social trending or will work with some of the larger attribution firms,” he says.

Matthew Hedberg, VP and general manager of professional services at Semcasting, says the challenge of targeting that undecided voter is so daunting that some candidates default to preaching to the choir. “Without the ability to find and communicate with swing voters, a campaign may simply decide to double down on reaching core supporters on the types of media properties they frequent,” he says.

Bans Have Little Impact

Each election cycle brings its own surprises, and 2020 was no exception. While it’s conventional wisdom that the candidates who raise and spend the most win more often, U.S. Senate races in Maine, South Carolina, and Iowa saw the challengers lose despite outspending their incumbent opponents and polling favorably throughout the campaign.

Link points out that the election cycle also showed the benefit of having a multicultural marketing strategy. “We saw a notable increase in spending, especially GOP spending, targeting Spanish-language media in places like Florida, Texas, and Arizona that seemed to have a strong persuasive impact,” he says.

Steve Passwaiter, VP, political for the Kantar Media Group, says out-of-home also received some political dollars, notably in markets such as Nevada and Florida. But he stresses that the 2020 election reaffirmed the resiliency of linear TV for large audiences.

“There’s a real bias in the consultant class where television is concerned,” Passwaiter says. “It’s really a television fixation, more so than radio, though radio can play a bit more of an important role in down-ballot races, where campaigns don’t have the budget to do television.”

AdImpact’s Link says it’s simply too early to tell if political campaigns — faced with the prospect of additional bans of political advertising in future elections — will change their reliance on social platforms going forward. “Keep in mind, about 60 percent of digital spend for the 2019-2020 cycle was direct response fundraising,” he says. “Any continued limitation would impact not only the ability to influence, but also fundraise.”

“In 2024, the media strategy for Democrats and Republicans might look radically different, not just from past campaigns but from each other.” — Matt Compton, SVP of mobilization and strategy at Blue State

Adding to the overall uncertainty is that political advertisers, similar to brand marketers, must navigate Google’s recent move to ban third-party cookies.

J.D. Bryant, senior director with the public affairs agency Bully Pulpit Interactive, says the most effective political advertising deploys paid media, rather than e-blasting, to build relationships.

“The advertisers that will succeed in the political space will keep pursuing that strategy,” Bryant says. “They’ll still use targeted, one-to-one media, but now they’ll need to do it by engaging a variety of partners and a broader array of audience-match technologies.”

Emerging Political Ad Platforms

Political advertisers are already turning their attention to the 2022 and 2024 election cycles, with an eye on far more spending on connected TV (CTV).

Paul Plawin, politics and public affairs sales manager at programmatic video platform Tremor Video, says that on top of incremental reach, CTV can provide consumer brands with a safe harbor compared to social media channels, which most voters consider to be unreliable when it comes to information about candidates for political office.

“Advertisers can leverage CTV to tap into a range of variables to target key voter audiences beyond the standard criteria of age, demographics, and location,” Plawin says. “They can also tap into voter registration, social media behavior, hobbies, and advocacy of key issues such as civil rights, healthcare, immigration, and more.”

Matt Compton, SVP of mobilization and strategy at Blue State, adds: “We know that 2020 accelerated a lot of media consumption trends so the media mix will look different for the next presidential cycle no matter what.”

Compton stresses that Democratic voters are more likely to be cord-cutters and mobile phone users, making them harder to reach with traditional advertising channels. “In 2024, the media strategy for Democrats and Republicans might look radically different, not just from past campaigns but from each other,” he says.

Berkovitz, from Boston University, says that political campaigns will most likely accelerate their search for the elusive voter in the elections ahead, helping other platforms emerge, including TikTok. The steady rise of independent voters in the last several years means that ad buyers will also have to broaden their aperture.

“If you can wedge an ad onto it, or a persuasive message, campaigns are going to use that platform,” he adds. “Most of these campaigns are so well funded, especially at the presidential level, or big senate and governor races, they’ll spend it on everything.”


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