In “The Top 10 Worst Places to Live,” Michael Beach captures one marketing tragedy of local politics: DMAs don’t line up with political districts, so much of the homestretch ad volume bombards people who can’t vote for the candidate. That’s half the story. The other half is that some people who can vote go numb from seeing so many ads from the same candidates on the same channels so many times.
Put simply, the conventional political media playbook is out of sync with modern life. It fails to use the full TV spectrum, and as a result puts 80% of the money on a handful of channels that reach less than 25% of viewers in the market.
One might presume the 2012 Obama campaign’s data-centric path to victory – which several advertising luminaries at the OMMA Audience Targeting conference cited as the blueprint for successful 21st Century advertising – would have changed everything. But the political consultants who control campaign spending are conditioned to one-up the competition wherever, whenever they appear on screen, whatever the cost.
Their playbook was written before the evolution of branded channels, which now constitute the majority of the TV spectrum. They mix scale and specificity, and match up with the giant advances in voter data – identifying people by party, neighborhood, issue, and a long list of other characteristics. The playbook says TV elects candidates, and that’s true; but it still says to double down on older channels where a shrinking audience has already gotten the point.
“If my competitor buys four spots on the 11 p.m. news, I’m buying six,” a long-time political consultant told me last month. When I asked what if they buy eight, he fired back, “Then I’ll buy 10.”
A look at Nielsen data for the 2014 midterm election markets shows that since 2004 pols have increased spending in broadcast TV by more than 46% on average while audience has declined by more than 20%. In some markets, it’s way beyond that - e.g., pols spending 225% more on broadcast TV chasing 25% fewer viewers in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District, and spending 219% more on broadcast to reach 26% fewer viewers in Illinois’ 10th Congressional District.
The nearer to Election Day, the more pols flood the broadcast networks (on Election Eve 2010 in Cleveland, for example, 92% of late news ads were political spots).
A number of the midterms are tight races where the final days, even hours, of ad messages matter supremely. To wrest advantage, candidates need to break with political media tradition and apply their precise voter maps to precise targeting on TV. A few media strategy firms (including Mr. Beach’s Targeted Victory) and candidates are now taking this approach, targeting ads by such factors as district, neighborhood configuration and party affiliation on a variety of cable channels. In the process, they’re making meaningful impressions on the majority of local viewers and voters, including the increasingly important yet elusive millennial voters who comprise 20% of the 2014 electorate.
The last weeks of a campaign are about immediate reach and relevance, to the voters who haven’t decided yet. By now, candidates know which platform and competitive messages resonate with particular voters; and they have pretty good maps on who’s undecided. The channels for this precise connection beckon, because 1976 strategy won’t get you elected in 2014. After all, voters get but one vote per election cycle; constant ad repetition can’t generate repeat business.