Why Political Advertisers Double Down On Local TV And What Brand Media Pros Can Learn From Them

Brand advertisers often communicate with a sense of urgency, offering promotions and seasonal messaging with short expiration dates. But political advertisers have a greater sense of finality -- hard deadlines as well as Federal Communications Commission rules that drive the way advertising is bought and sold.

In addition, political ads must be able to quickly change tactics as the hearts and minds of voters react to current events, therefore testing the ability of new automated buying systems as well as humans managing the flood of orders. 

I'm sure you already know that 2020 is expected to be a huge political advertising year. As reported by eMarketer, spending could hit $6 billion -- up from $4.35 billion during the last presidential contest.



While digital tactics are important, local broadcast is still expected to take the lion’s share (more than 53% of the budget) because of local TV's proven trust factor, ability to reach key voter segments in specific geographies and reach.

The remaining budget will be relatively split between digital advertising and cable TV.

A data analyst who works for a top U.S. media-buying agency for political campaigns discussed key issues in political advertising on the condition of anonymity. The trends he discussed include: the effectiveness of local broadcast TV, the right reasons and times to buy digital and TV, addressable TV, cross-platform management and automation.

1. Local broadcast TV reaches more people in key segments, and with a high trust factor

Although political campaigns are expected to invest more dollars into digital, local television remains the most effective method for swaying voters.

According to Advertising Analytics, 8 million political ads are expected to air on local broadcast TV stations in 2020 -- up 45% from 2018. TV and its ability to communicate a message and elicit feelings or calls to action is simply second to none in terms of driving awareness.

Why is there such an important focus on broadcast TV for political advertising? One factor is the high number of voters who turn out to vote are 55 and older. This group still spends more time-consuming broadcast TV than digital.

Another is simply since the days of the first televised presidential debate, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, TV has maintained its position as the medium of choice for politicians to reach the electorate.

Also, more candidates are entering the race than what we traditionally see. The numbers are a bit fluid as candidates drop out but at last count there were 19 vying for the Democratic Primary. Some have higher name recognition and the rest less so and as a result, more debates, more fundraising and more competition for awareness is expected next year.

Local broadcast TV is still the place with the broadest reach, making it the most effective medium for political messages. And, as data from this survey report by Videa shows that nearly two in three Americans trust local TV news over other news sources.

2. There’s a time and a place for both digital and broadcast TV

Political campaigns put digital advertising to work early as they build their war chests. Then they reach audiences through TV later in the campaign as they need to compete against other candidates, typically after Labor Day. However, the greater the need is for awareness, the more should be invested in broadcast TV.

For instance, a lesser known candidate needs more local TV advertising compared to career politicians who have high name recognition. If the newcomer has deep pockets, a campaign could potentially go as far out as 12 to 14 months in advance of the vote.

We have also seen data that shows that local TV is still crucially important to congressional and statewide political races. Data from the 2018 political season, saw a 58 percent increase in the number of ads aired in races for governor, U.S. Senate and U.S. House, according to the Wesleyan Media Project.

And even though big money will continue to be spent on digital campaigns, political ads on Facebook, in particular, lack the transparency, accountability and tracking that traditional broadcast TV offers and is legally required to abide by.

We all saw the effects of this play out in the last presidential election.

This issue has been brought up repeatedly by Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren, who has directly called out Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, for his company’s policies on political advertising. For this reason alone, this justifies spending more dollars in TV where at least you know your opponent’s ads are held to some standard of truth.

It’s also notable that the looming presidential impeachment investigation is affecting overall ad spending, which includes TV spend. According to Advertising Analytics, more than $8 million was spent on national ads between September 24th and October 7th -- all focused on impeachment. These dollars include spend across all mediums: national and local TV, radio, digital and social media.

 As we approach the primaries, we can observe the differing media tactics of the major campaigns.

The Trump campaign continues to focus the majority of its spend on digital -- Facebook, Google, YouTube, etc. -- while the Biden campaign actually recently pivoted away from digital and back to television.

This decision was perhaps hastened after the Biden campaign requested Facebook remove an incendiary video, produced by the Trump campaign about Biden and Ukraine, only to be denied. 

3. Addressable TV makes it easier to target likely voters with specific messaging

Political media buyers are experimenting with all that addressable TV has to offer, targeting households with specific messaging, and the data analyst I spoke with likes what he sees.

Why? Buyers can aim (and measure) ads with specific messages at voters who are more likely to turn out for a Democratic primary in important states, like Iowa or states participating in Super Tuesday. For example, a campaign may result in a specific ad that was delivered to 200,000 households, 85% of the demographic in that geography. And, that it was seen an average of five times.

The number of addressable households in the United States continues to grow. The Video Advertising Bureau (VAB) estimated that 54 percent of all TV homes are now addressable households, out of a total of 119.9 million total homes with television, according to MediaPost.

4. Cross-platform measurement

The call for cross-platform measurement for all advertisers, not just political ones, is strong. Buyers and sellers need to be able to measure frequency and reach across various mediums -- like digital and broadcast TV -- in one place.

While tools are in their infancy, stakeholders will get glimpses of its high potential in this political cycle.

5. Automation

As I pointed out earlier, a historical surge in the demand for broadcast TV inventory is expected in the 2020 election cycle taxing both systems and people. Interestingly, however, the increase in political spending will also affect non-political orders. Why is that? Because political orders will add a tremendous amount of orders that would not normally exist, they will inevitably disrupt, or displace, the typical flow of traditional advertising orders. 

Automating as much of the buying and selling process as possible creates efficiencies for those managing orders.                         

Whether you serve clients who are running for office or are running brand advertising campaigns, the remainder of 2019 is a great time to research and test new technologies to help deal with the surge in demand that everyone will feel in 2020.

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