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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

TV Still Rules Political Ad Wars

This item by J.P. Green was originally published on September 21, 2010.
As the political ad wars heat up for the Fall stretch of the midterm campaign, television is still regarded as the pivotal media, according to a recent Ad Week report (via Reuters) by Mike Shields. Conversely, spending for digital media has been disappointing this year, as Shields explains:

Following the recent digital-savvy campaigns led by Obama and Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, many expected a slew of imitators to emerge during the 2010 midterms, leading to a surge in online spending. But political ad insiders say that with the exception of a handful of digital-focused campaigns, few candidates are dumping dollars onto the Web, outside of social media and search. And with six weeks or so to go before Election Day, not many watchers are expecting a sudden surge.
According to Borrell & Associates, political spending on digital media should double this year vs. 2008, reaching $44.5 million. Despite that hefty growth rate, “that’s really not much,” said Kip Cassino, Borrell’s vp of research. Some estimates place digital spending at 1 percent of total political media dollars. “There’s more of it, but it’s still a fraction,” said Evan Tracey, president, campaign media analysis group, Kantar Media.
“Spending has just not developed this year,” said Ted Utz, managing director of the local rep firm Petry Digital. Utz said his company works with around 10 top political ad agencies. “They are staffed up and poised to place digital money, and it’s been really anemic…

Rightly or wrongly, it appears most political campaigns, or the ad agencies advising them, believe that television still provides the most powerful message machine, as Shields explains:

Perhaps the biggest factor holding back digital spending is political consultants’ love affair with TV, which, according to Cassino, gets two of every three dollars spent in this arena. TV has a long track record of getting people elected, particularly in local congressional races, where a candidate might be running “for the 10th or 11th term,” said Cassino. “So they hand digital planning to the kid who comes in as a volunteer.”

Shields notes that political consultants tend to be skeptical about banner ads, and that there is a dearth of studies assessing the impact of digital ads. Of the spending for digital advertising, most of the growth has been in search ads — Google search ads are up 800 percent over 2008, and there has also been an uptick in “locally targeted Facebook self serve ads,” along with some growing campaign interest in YouTube “promoted videos.”
Shield’s article did not break down the remaining 32 percent of political ad spending in terms of print, telephone, radio, billboards, direct mail and other media, all of which can be useful in “micro-targeting” specific constituencies. But it’s clear that political campaign budget managers and consultants still see television as the best way to reach everyone.
Shields quotes a ‘veteran online political ad operative,’ who says that candidates still treat digital media “as a stepchild. “Look at Meg Whitman in California,” he said of the former eBay CEO. “She’s putting all her money in TV.”
With respect to Democrats in particular, more spending on digital ads might nonetheless be a cost-effective investment, especially given concerns about turning out the progressive base. But it’s not hard to understand the lopsided investment in television in light of internet demographics. according to one demographic analysis, 38 percent of seniors age 65+, who turn out to vote in impressive numbers, are internet-active, vs. 93 percent of 18-29 year-olds, 81 percent of age 30-49 and 70 percent of those 50-64 years of age.

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