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New Online Ad Channels: Disrupting Political Campaign Spending and Outcomes

November 9, 2018    I   A. Bruce Crawley


With the 2018 mid-term elections now (mostly) behind us, there is probably no better time to reflect upon the fact that, like consumer packaged goods companies, political campaign managers are moving away from their longstanding reliance on traditional and broadcast media, and are moving to lower-cost, more-precisely-targeted, digital and online media options to reach and persuade their target audiences.


Indeed, as we entered the 2018 mid-terms, Borrell Associates projected that the early experiments in banner ads in political campaigns, 20 years ago, had mushroomed to become a full-scale presidential advertising tool, in 2008, with the Obama campaign. The practice seeped into broad and standard applications in the 2014 mid-term elections, and exploded to full Facebook/Cambridge Analytica mode with the 2016 Trump campaign.


The same Borrell report estimated that a comparison of ad expenditures between the 2014 mid-terms and the 2018 elections would show that broadcast advertising would decrease by 29.9%, to $3.4B; that newspaper use in related campaigns would decline by 16.1%, to $554M; that out-of-home political ads would drop by 50.1%, to $318M; that the use of radio in the campaigns would decline from $619M to $55M; that cable would actually increase by 79% to $995M; but that online and digital political advertising was expected to increase by a whopping 2539%, from $71M, in 2014, to $1.9B in 2018, to represent 22% of all political advertising, during the period.


That’s $1.9B in more-precisely-targeted, dramatically less regulated and substantially less costly expenditures. If it hadn’t been a “new day” for political advertising, prior to 2018, it clearly is now.


The 2016 Trump campaign famously spent significantly fewer ad dollars on traditional media than the Clinton campaign, and was able, nevertheless, to run a largely sub-rosa, highly competitive, if not popular-vote-winning, campaign for president, with an extensive use of Facebook and other online tools and channels.


While we’re still trying to sort out who actually will be declared the winners in many of the closely-contested 2018 elections (i.e., Scott, Gillum, Abrams, etal.), there is already substantial evidence from Business Insider that the campaigns, this time around, that spent the very most in measured, traditional ad buys didn’t necessarily come out on top.


For example, in a Hilary Clinton kind of way, spending the most on traditional media was no guarantee of electoral success, in 2018. In fact, among the top 5 U.S. Senate candidates who spent the most on traditional media during their mid-term campaigns, according to the Federal Election Commission(FEC), three lost outright and, one, Rick Scott, the incumbent in Florida, who spent $66.3M on his campaign, is now leading opponent Bill Nelson by just .2%, and is facing a recount. Of that group of top traditional media spenders, therefore, only Ted Cruz, who eked out a 50.2% victory over Beto O’Rourke in Texas, actually won (so far).


Before the onset of digital media in political campaigns, it all seemed so easy...raise the most money, spend those funds liberally on traditional media outlets, and victory was virtually guaranteed.


With the growth of largely FEC-unregulated, potentially unethical, online advertising, the political campaign landscape has proved to be significantly more difficult to maneuver.


It’s certainly a “new day.”


The private sector should be taking note, if it hasn’t done so, heretofore.


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A. Bruce Crawley is president, CEO and principal owner of Millennium 3 Management, Inc. (M3M). Read More...

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