Our Insights

How Media Habits Are Changing Political Advertising

August 5, 2020

As COVID fallout, civil unrest, and our reckoning with racial injustice play out on TVs around the county — and right in our back yards — they’re about to be joined by another hugely impactful media force: the 2020 election.

Media has and will continue to play a critical role in our elections. On that note, we have some trends and evolving best practices that political advertisers should consider, including channels to target and partners to seek out, as they ramp up their campaigns this fall.

The Programmatic Shift

Advertising has shifted toward programmatic over the past few cycles. Just how much? In a recent podcast, ad tech and services company Centro’s Grace Briscoe said that 60% of client spending in 2018 was programmatic, and this is projected to be even higher in 2020. (AdExchanger predicts that 70% of ads will be purchased programmatically this year.) Video is also popular among Centro political clients, with 60% of their media mix in 2018 being video, a trend expected to stay constant in 2020.

CTV’s Growth Spurt

Connected TV, or CTV, is drawing bigger audiences and offering better scale than ever before. This is due in part to “Cord Cutters,” who now account for a third of U.S. consumers. When they leave Linear TV, they’re only reachable on CTV. But the growth also has to do with the advanced, evolving targeting capabilities of CTV. For example, in 2016 political campaigns could not target by DMA or ZIP code in statewide elections. Fast-forward to 2018, and campaigns could reach TVs in these specific areas. And today, CTV reach is up 10% year over year, according to comScore, reaching more than 70 million households during a time when we’re consuming more TV content than ever.  This movement toward CTV has brought on a new trend: clients making early commitments to platforms such as Hulu — something previously unheard of — so that they can assure themselves of ad inventory as Election Day inches closer.

Reshuffling Social Media

Despite all the noise regarding various social media platforms’ stances on political ads, it’s still a tool for political campaigns. While Twitter banned political ads, its audience dwarfs that of Facebook, which still allows the ads. Two things to keep in mind if you plan on making Facebook a big part of your media mix: first, users can opt out of receiving political ads, limiting reach. And second, political ad content is becoming increasing polarizing among users.

Voter Targeting

Political campaigns have traditionally been far ahead of the curve when it comes to targeting. This includes bringing “micro-targeting” to direct mail at the intersection of voter data and subscriber lists, and then delivering custom messaging.

Tuning into your TV anytime between now and Election Day is enough to remind you that TV is still No. 1 with campaigns. Digital is also popular with campaigns thanks to the granularity by which they can target valuable voters. When seamlessly combined with CTV, the tandem can make for an effective integrated campaign. Heads up, if you’re running digital campaigns through Google, be aware of restrictions specific to political advertising:

  • No first-party targeting (including REM and customer lists)
  • Limited demographics: Only age and gender
  • Broad geography: Nothing below zip code level for targeting
  • Contextual targeting: Preventing targeting specific content themes or topics

We mentioned direct mail already, and as we near November, your mailbox is going to put in some overtime. Candidates for political office still keep this channel in their mix because of targeting capabilities, as well as not having to worry about privacy and Personally Identifiable Information (PII) compliance. As estimated $750 million will be spent on direct mail by campaigns this fall. That’s a lot of stamps.

What’s Next?

Quick reality check: the 2020 election is just three months away. Traditionally, we’ve seen campaign spends begin surging after Labor Day, ramp up into October, and spike over the final 5 weeks. The last 10 days leading up to the 2018 election accounted for more than 20% of all media spending alone. But this is 2020, a year unlike others in oh so many ways.

One possible curve ball? Increased mail-in and absentee voting could extend media buys further out, creating more of a long-lasting plateau than a peak. In other words, with a significant portion of voters potentially casting their ballots weeks and months ahead of Election Day, focusing spending on the final sprint may be fruitless.

Another wrinkle could be the return of transparency into what and where a campaign’s opponent is spending. Campaigns have long needed to make their spends on traditional media accessible to ensure fairness, for example, to ensue all candidates are charged the same rates. But digital media ducked this obstacle, giving candidates and their campaigns cover. Now we’re returning to the status quo, with more digital platforms tracking and sharing campaign spending. This includes Facebook and its Spending Tracker reporting on the presidential, House, and Senate races.

It’s already clear that the 2020 election will be like no other. While some of the media fallout is already known, the rest will be coming into focus over the coming weeks. If you’re a campaign looking for a strategic media partner, or a brand needing to ensure it’s not lost in the increasingly frantic election season, reach out to Lewis Media Partners today.

Tricia Janney