TV & the Art of Effective Political Ads
28 January 2019 • tvsquared
Mark Hudson,
Head of Business Intelligence

This article originally ran in Multichannel News on Jan. 28, 2019.

Election Day is the Super Bowl of American politics, according to CNN senior political analyst John Avlon, and with ad spending hitting a new record for the 2018 midterm elections, he’s spot-on.

This year’s total midterm political ad spend hit $3.27 billion, according to Advertising Analytics, close to double the sum from four years ago. As the average American watches an average of more than four hours of TV per day, it’s no shock that the medium is a key tool for impactful political campaigning, providing access to vast, highly-engaged audiences.

Why has ad spend spiked so high, though, and how can campaigners know if their Super Bowl-sized budgets are making a difference?

Understanding the Playing Field

Political campaigns outstrip and outspend everyday advertisers by millions of dollars, providing a huge boon to local affiliates — and the networks count on this significant injection of dollars. However, this wasn’t a typical midterm election period. Spending surged, but it was the candidates themselves who changed the game. The retirement of a staggering amount of members of the House of Representatives saw the addition of numerous new faces, including more female candidates who gained attention for their strong views — not simply for being women.

Take Arizona, for example, where two women candidates ran for Senate, one who had protested against the Iraq War and criticized capitalism and the other an Air Force veteran — two very different sides of the coin. These new voices are backed by generous donors bringing extra ad dollars and with such competing views, the campaigning heats up.

Controversy is one of the most impactful approaches for political campaigns, with many ads attacking the opposing candidate. Negative spots are often more effective for political ads than positive ones, and with content unregulated and at the discretion of the networks the messages used are often very powerful. But understanding the target audience is key to ensuring ads are successful, budgets are used effectively, and the messages are impactful. New technologies sparked interest for this election season, with a slight rise in addressable ads.

There are two key approaches: via cable and broadcast, accessing as many people at the same time with the greatest impact; or addressable, reducing ad spend waste by ensuring a very specific message reaches a granular audience. For the 2018 midterms, this technology hadn’t fully penetrated the market, as there is no single addressable platform that can achieve the wide reach political campaigns are looking for. This route also impacts campaign effectiveness, as the very nature of voting is private. With polling proven to be often inaccurate, targeting data used for addressable TV is likely to be flawed.

Targeting mass audiences is the key, but political advertisers still face a disconnect when it comes to ad exposure and effectiveness. Context is everything when it comes to TV advertising and this is where response data is king. Mass reach is great, but if a liberal-focused ad is shown to a conservative demographic, the chances this campaign will be effective are slim to none.

In fact, New York’s incumbent Democratic governor aired his ads on a conservative-leaning radio station — completely out of context, meaning listeners were likely to tune the message out.

A Successful Game Strategy

However for the majority of campaigns a more common tactic is to focus on the undecided voters, as a large portion of the population doesn’t actually make a final decision until in the voting booth. This raises the questions of where to find these people and how to persuade them. The answer: data.

It’s important to understand who is likely to be receptive and who actually interacts with ads. Data allows advertisers to trim waste and understand whether their money was directed towards demographics where the ad would be effective — and not simply ignored. By utilizing real-time response data from second-screen activity, advertisers can attribute activity to ad slots and justify or optimize spend to target days, dayparts, networks, programs, genres, creatives and even audience segments. By having a definite measure against political campaigns, advertisers are able to demonstrate why money spent on TV is a good investment and whether budgets have been utilized successfully.

With campaigning for the 2020 presidential elections already underway, pumping yet more dollars into the TV ecosystem, it’s imperative to begin with an understanding of which tactics worked this time. Campaigns will then be well-placed to avoid clutter, target key demographics and optimize to ensure new voters are continually reached and Super Bowl-sized dollars are justified in the race to win at the polls.