Commentary

Candidates Need To Break With Tradition To Win In 2014

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.

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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.

3 comments about "Candidates Need To Break With Tradition To Win In 2014".
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  1. Abby Auerbach from TVB, October 9, 2014 at 5:04 p.m.

    The playbook is sound, Sean. TV elects candidates. But not all TV is created equal, and the winning political strategists know it. Broadcast continues to garner the lion’s share of political ad dollars (more like 85%) vs. cable TV and other media because it is the medium that reaches and delivers more voters.

    According to your analysis, “since 2004 pols have increased spending in broadcast TV by more than 46%” and Broadcast TV spending in some Congressional Districts is up more than 200%.

    That’s true. Here’s why:

    In Arizona (your example) the market of Phoenix represents nearly all of Congressional District #1 – where you cite spending on broadcast up 225%.
    In Phoenix:
     Reach: 15% of TV Households receive their television exclusively Over-the-Air. Another 46% receive television via Alternate Delivery Systems (not Cable TV) which significantly limits their ability to receive any local commercials.
     Frequency: Last week, 26% of all political ads ran in the Early Morning daypart vs. only 19% in the combined Early and Late News Dayparts and only 8% in the voter-rich Prime daypart. Savvy political media buyers are using a mix of TV dayparts to effectively reach and target voters.
     Ratings: In May 2014, 97 of the top 100 TV programs, based on RA35+ (the key voter demo) were on broadcast TV while only 3 (2x Basketball, 1x Baseball) were on cable.
     Voter Profile: Phoenix is the 9th largest Hispanic DMA in the U.S with 373.5K Hispanic Households. The Spanish language TV broadcasters reach 100% of Hispanic TV Households.

    Just last month a couple of accomplished political consultants publicly stated, “Putting all resources into cable is just wasting money. Cable is a good reinforcement of what we’re doing on Broadcast,” and “Digital, cable and radio are all supplemental mediums. Digital has taken over the radio budget and is now up against the cable budget.”

    The playbook still has the winning political play: Broadcast TV.

  2. Sean Cunningham from Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau, October 15, 2014 at 10:18 a.m.

    Hello Abby!

    I’m glad you jumped in, not just because two TV voices are better than one, but because “too much agreement ruins a good chat.”
    As you used the Phoenix market, let’s stay there. Interestingly, your assertions of ad dollar dominanace “more like 85%” bring me back to the point of both my opinion piece (above) and that of Michael Beach who wrote ”The Top 10 Worst Places to Live”. Both examine the politcal buyer’s legacy practice of over-saturating a few local TV stations with 80%+ of the TV ad budget and the bombarding effect this has on some voters. My pivot simply called out an ever-growing number of political ads chasing an ever-dwindling group of voters.
    A Phoenix example of bombarding? Checking station logs of the 4 local broadcast stations in Phoenix in the days just before the 2012 election shows that in the Late Local News daypart, some 101 (yes, one hundred and one) political ads ran on one night during the same 34-minute window across just 4 stations (34 mins. per news broadcast x 4 channels = 136 total minutes of airtime), with 101 of a total 102 ads being political ads. That’s what anyone would call bombardment.
    As you know, what ironically causes those ever-more ads is ever-less rating points. In the Phoenix Late News case it was a 60% free-fall in ratings compounded through progressive political cycles (from 12,464 A25-54 Broadcast Late News rating points in 2004 to only 4,990 in 2012) that set fertile ground for politcal ad inundation, while the other contributor is politcal buyers looking to buy the same gross rating point loads “as they always have” (or more). In Local Late News the only way to get that done is to strip-mine the news content out in favor of more ad breaks - - to the point where the news content serves as occasional breaks among the bloated political ad pods.
    What’s the bottom line on bombarding the Phoenix broadcast viewer? The 25% loss of salable rating points (from 117,937 in 2004 to 88,865 in 2012) was answered with a 225% increase in rating points (from 7,479 to 24,271) from politcal buyers.
    Again, an ever-growing number of political ads chasing an ever-dwindling group of voters.
    Certainly a point we should agree on is that the best political media investment in 2014 is TV advertising and more TV advertising. It’s not a choice of one channel vs. another. It’s about using the full dial, as stated in the article, and avoiding overkill. All any political buyer need do is look at the audience share figures cycle-over-cycle to better distribute the ad dollars widely and deeply across the TV dial. The changes in 60-days-prior-to-election audience shares in the top 50 local markets (24% share for Broadcast, 45% for Cable, as of 2012) support thinking, planning and buying wide and deep across many channels. (to be continued…)

  3. Sean Cunningham from Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau, October 15, 2014 at 10:19 a.m.

    Abby, two other points you made call for some more detail:

    1. While it’s correct that (in Phoenix) “another 46% receive television via Alternate Delivery Systems (not Cable),” what’s omitted is the fact that “Cable” (Cox Media & NCC) now also sell the ads locally for Direct TV and Dish in the Phoenix market. This has boosted the “Cable” HH coverage by 63% over the past three years.

    2. While the “top 100” point was mighty relevant during 1960s/70s era elections, in 2014 those 100 shows are less than 5% of what people watch on TV (again – the viewers are now distributed up and down the dial). A deeper look reveals that the Broadcast top 100 have not only lost over 60% of their rating points in the last decade, but Cable’s top 100 programs generate 30% more rating points than the Broadcast 100… but I digress.
    My point remains a simple one. The majority of viewers and voters are more habitually distributed outside the few local stations that political buyers are pouring ever-more dollars into; and Phoenix Late News is a good example of what happens (136 total minutes of airtime – with 101 of a total 102 ads being political ads) when political buyers want to “party like it’s 1999.”

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