The Underrated Power Of Context In Political Advertising

As our country enters the final stretch of primary season, wondering how long Bernie Sanders can keep up with Hillary Clinton, or what to make of the Donald Trump phenomenon, voters are constantly bombarded with political advertising.  

This year, campaigns are expected to break $1 billion in online ad spend for the first time, making digital strategies more important than ever.

Marketing teams are shelling out to buy third-party audiences of registered, prospective and undecided voters, voters by ideology, even “engaged” voters. Then, using fine-tuned creative messaging to persuade these groups on the merits of their candidate, they play into their fears.

Or simply convince them to visit the ballot box.

Conventional wisdom likes to believe that in the end, voters will choose the most capable, charismatic candidate whose views on the issues important to them are closely aligned with their own opinions.

Indeed, most citizens prefer to think of themselves as judicious arbiters of their own democracy — shaking their heads in disbelief at the “irrational decisions” of their compatriots. Yet many voters are unaware of the seemingly less consequential elements that have the power to change their own hearts and minds.

For example, research has consistently shown that traits such as name recognition, height and physical attractiveness factor deeply into our decision-making.

To be sure, rather than purely the cumulative result of calculated reasoning, our voter preferences are also impacted over time by dozens, if not hundreds, of inputs that we may not even notice.

Savvy campaign managers know this, and will orchestrate the context, the subtext and the inputs that people are less conscious of in order to gain an advantage.

Anyone in the business long enough can tell you that name recognition can be boosted with more media exposure, height can be feigned by having candidates always elevated, while physical attractiveness can be enhanced with makeup.

When it comes to digital marketing, however, campaigns often limit themselves to the standard levers of tailored messaging, targeted audiences and memorable imagery. One of the most impactful levers is among the least obvious: the contextual relevance of a political ad’s environment.

A recent study by The Guardian found that when an ad appears in a contextually relevant environment (think of an airline marketing on a travel site), it causes 23% more people to believe the product benefits them, and 18% more people to feel positive toward the advertiser.

If a candidate equals a product, political campaigns have much to gain by incorporating a contextual component into their advertising. For instance, candidates can target inventory that discusses controversial issues, such as Flint, abortion and ISIS. Or, in the case of Ted Cruz in Iowa, a fireworks ban, one of the many topics he used to engage with local audiences and beat Donald Trump in the state.

Consider a political ad that represents the candidate’s view on illegal immigration.

Which would register more impact: delivering that message to a user reading unemployment benefits, or to a user trying to check the latest sports scores? In this case, the user in both circumstances might be the precise kind of audience the candidate wants to target, and the creative message might be spot on.

But in only one circumstance were they actually in the right mindset to receive that message.

Another strategy is to target news or blog content that discusses their opponent in a positive light, then use the juxtaposition as an opportunity to influence those readers.

For example, if a candidate is trying to differentiate himself or herself on social policy, what better place to communicate that difference than in the sidebar of an article where someone is reading a description of the opponent’s position? This content may seem hard to target, but with the page-level intelligence that semantic data providers have today, it is not.

This approach to context is incredibly powerful, and the applications are inexhaustible.  Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The Tipping Point: “The key to getting people to change their behavior…sometimes lies with the smallest details of their immediate situation.”  

Political campaigns looking to make a difference online would be wise to pay attention to the contextual relevance of their ads.

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