Commentary

The Media Math Behind Russian Meddling

The Mueller investigation confirmed that the Russians meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election; however, it is not believed to have had a material impact on the outcome of the election.

Russian ad spend was low relative to all the paid advertising and the value of the earned media exposure that both candidates received.  According to U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Russian ad spend on the election amounted to approximated $1.25 million a month. The Mueller Report mentions that Russia purchased ads opposing Hillary Clinton as early as March 16, 2016 -- before the primary race was decided.

For the sake of discussion, let’s say that the Russians started spending $1.25 million a month on U.S. presidential election advertising in March 2016 and it ran up until the vote on Nov. 8 of that year.  Moreover, let’s be conservative and give March and November full weight in terms of ad dollars. This would put the length of the Russian ad campaign at nine months with a total ad spend of $11.25 million.

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According to Kantar Media CMAG, ad spending by the Trump and Clinton campaigns and the top spending PACs amounted to a total of $569.4 million.  A media analysis firm by the name of MediaQuant estimates that Trump and Clinton also received about $5 billion and $3.24 billion, respectively, in free (earned) media coverage.  It is believed that Trump received the lions share due to his sometimes unorthodox and controversial style of rhetoric.

Another way to look at the math would be to add the $11.25 million Russian ad spend to the $160.5 million reported Trump ad spend.  This $171.75 million ($11.25M + $160.5M) for Trump would still have left his campaign at a huge disadvantage relative to Clinton’s $408.5 million ad spend. 

Earned media is where Trump comes out ahead. When you add Trump’s estimated $5 billion of free earned media coverage to his $160.5 million of ad spend it comes to $5.2 billion of total media coverage versus Clinton’s $3.6 billion.  If you add the Russian ad spend to the Trump number and round up, there is no change.

If we total up these numbers and calculate the percent of media value attributable to Russian interference, it comes to 2.0% of paid advertising; but only 0.1% of the sum of paid advertising and earned media; a small share of voice compared to all of the other advertising and media exposure.

One could argue that it was a very tight race and the Russians were so sophisticated in the application of their media spend that they were able to drive a disproportionately massive return on their media investment; one much larger than would be the case for the campaigns themselves. 

This would imply that their ad targeting capabilities and creative messaging were far superior to those used by the political consultancies and media agencies employed by the Trump and Clinton campaigns and the campaigns run by all of the PACs supporting the candidates. This is simply not accurate.

For starters, the Trump campaign hired Cambridge Analytica (CA).  The company was funded by billionaire Robert Mercer. It employed many brilliant data scientists and Ph.D.’s from top schools around the world as well as highly experienced media and research personnel.*  CA worked directly with Trump’s digital media provider – Giles-Parscale.

CA provided data scientists, research people and more digital marketing staff who were embedded in the campaign in both San Antonio, TX, and Trump Tower. The campaign was conducting 1,500 surveys a week in every battleground state. This data was matched back to the National Republican Committee’s database of voter information and CA’s data scientists were constantly updating their models to provide the most accurate audience segments for ad targeting.

In its work for the Trump campaign, CA produced thousands of different creative messages that were designed to resonate with the various modeled audience segments.  The digital and TV marketing people that worked for CA and the campaign applied the audience segments and creative to execute data-driven campaigns all across the internet and to a lesser extent on television.

The Trump campaign itself was not alone in this, CA also worked for the Make America Number One super PAC.  Deep Root, another top political consultancy, worked for the NRC. There were other consultancies that worked for other PACs.

On the Clinton side, the work was no less impressive.  It is reported that Clinton had access to the same technologies used by Barack Obama’s successful campaigns in 2008 and 2012.  It had hired over 50 engineers and developers who had previously worked for the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter.  The campaign used The Groundwork platform for organizing data generated by mass email programs, tracking donors and analyzing marketing databases. 

Just as CA was backed by a billionaire on the conservative side, The Groundwork was backed by a billionaire on the liberal side; specifically, by Eric Schmidt, former CEO and chairman, Google.

Regarding Eric Schmidt and Google, it is reported that 90% of online searches are conducted using Google’s search engine. Fifty percent of clicks go to the first two items, 90% of clicks go to items on the first page. Few people look at other results pages.  There is evidence to support that people are swayed by Google rankings.

This effect has a name -- search engine manipulation effect (SEME) -- and major corporations go to great lengths and expense trying to figure out how to place higher in Google’s search engine rankings.  According to a digital magazine of ideas called Aeon: “If Google were to set about fixing an election, it could identify the users who were undecided. Then it could send customized rankings favoring one candidate to just those people.” This is not to say that Google or Eric Schmidt would ever be guilty of this; they would certainly be in a position to help a candidate with search engine optimization (SEO).

These U.S. campaigns and political consultancies employed very smart people who used the latest and most sophisticated data analytics and ad tech tools.  They had access to large amounts of data and were running surveys and models to identify people in key states predicted to be the most persuadable. The great weight of their marketing budgets and ad tech was then focused on advertising to these individuals.

Ad budget size, data analytics and technology aside, could the Russian creative messaging have been so potent as to have whipped up an oversized ad response?  Probably not; the messaging used by U.S. political consultancies is often based on where people stand on various issues; e.g., if you were against gun control you might be targeted to receive an ad that showed how the candidate planned to support the right to carry arms or if you were for gun control you would be targeted to receive an ad to show how the candidate was planning to make assault rifles illegal. 

This is not to say the same candidate would activate ads that took opposite sides of the same issue. Negative ads would be similarly targeted to achieve maximum effect and U.S. PACs and consultancies hold little back when it comes to describing opponents in a poor light.

It is of great concern that another country tried to meddle in the US presidential election, and we do need to protect our democratic process.  The good news is that it likely had minimal effect if any; particularly, when looked at in the context of all the other highly targeted paid advertising and earned media that took place.

*Ed DeNicola is a former head of TV at Cambridge Analytica.  He started his career working for a cable TV network, spent almost 20 years at The Nielsen Company and learned TV ad targeting from the company that invented it (TiVo Research).  He is currently working to make TV shoppable.

2 comments about "The Media Math Behind Russian Meddling".
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  1. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, October 10, 2019 at 9:59 a.m.

    And yet we also pretend that the U.S. government has never, ever meddled in elections around the world.

  2. Ed De Nicola from SceneSave, October 11, 2019 at 10:55 a.m.

    You may be right about that, Douglas.  I've never studied or tracked it.  One thing I can say from my time working for a political consultancy is that it was surprising to learn from my digital counterparts how easy it is to execute a digital ad campaign in another country right from offices in here the US. 

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