Americans love post-election scuttlebutt, and there is no shortage of pundits eager to fill the demand. The marketing community in particular enjoys dissecting major elections, assessing what worked and what did not to see if there are implications for their brand.
One takeaway from the 2012 election that made the rounds recently is that the Obama for America outspent Romney for President on display advertising. While this is interesting, marketers could draw the wrong conclusions from this data.
President Obama won the election for many reasons, but display ads were not likely a major contributor. Display is a great medium, but it is typically direct-response oriented, where success is measured by clicks from viewers who are already motivated to act. While this has its place in promoting specific actions like voter turnout, petition gathering and fundraising, banner ads are far less effective at shifting a viewer’s perception on a issue, let alone persuading an undecided voter.
When it comes to persuading the undecided, there is good reason television advertising dominates. Few other mediums can capture the emotion and story-telling ability of live video. Some ads are so powerful that they become synonymous with the campaign itself, such as Lyndon Johnson’s “Daisy” ad in 1964, which warned of a nuclear winter, or Ronald Reagan’s iconic “Morning in America” in 1984. In the 2012 election, TV advertising represented nearly $1 billion of spending on behalf of the candidates, or about half of the total amount funds raised.
In-stream video advertising, the most analogous digital medium to television, also garnered high budgets during the election. Video -- particularly programmatic buying of video where marketers retain control over every aspect of a buy -- allows marketers to repurpose existing television ads, pinpoint specific districts, control where ads are running and optimize in real-time based on which ads perform best. Reporting in video is particularly robust, letting campaigns move beyond clicks to measure engagement. For instance, campaigns can tell how long an ad maintained user’s attention, which provides insights as to where the message worked or fell flat.
The results are a powerful electioneering medium that display cannot match. As Forrester stated in a recent report, video is similar to TV because it offers the ability “to go above and beyond ‘static’ display in communicating brand messages, making it a medium that marketers pay attention to.” According to our research, video easily beats display at getting viewers to remember an ad’s message, with lift in recall averaging 8.3% compared to between 1.8% and 2.4% for banner ads. This difference is poised to increase in the next few years, according to Forrester – half of the marketers they interviewed believe online video will get more effective over time, while 66% of marketers believe display will become less effective.
In the 2012 election, it was clear early on that the support of the undecided “swing” voting bloc (which overwhelmingly supported Obama in 2008) would require the most courting by candidates. With this in mind, Mitt Romney for President, along with Targeted Victory focused on persuading voters in swing states during the election, and video offered the best format to do that, representing about 70% of Mitt Romney’s spend on persuasion advertising. While the results were encouraging for future campaigns, ultimately they did not make the difference. But we are clear on one thing: it was not getting outspent in display that determined the election outcome.
It is revealing to look at some of the creative of actual display ads from the election. The majority from both campaigns were clearly designed to either help in fundraising (getting people into an email list) or increasing turnout among existing voters.
But existing voters are only a piece of the puzzle. If elections were about clicks, search ads would be the hottest thing in political marketing.