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Don’t believe the (digital) hype: Political campaigns still focus on TV for ads

Overall, 2018 political campaigns and PACs spent only 2.7% to 5.1% of their budgets on digital ads. Fifty percent of their spending went to TV ads.

Don’t believe the (digital) hype: Political campaigns still focus on TV for ads
[Photo: Burak K/Pexels]

While the Trump 2020 campaign is already spending big on digital ads, other campaigns at the state and national levels still rely mainly on TV and direct mail to reach voters. That’s according to a new study from the Democratic volunteer organizing group Tech For Campaigns, which based its findings on a review of the Google and Facebook political ad archive.

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Winning Senate campaigns, TFC found, spent only 4%-7% of their media budgets on digital media. Meanwhile, U.S. adults now spend an average of 6 hours per day with digital media, and brands (which influence consumers all day, every day, not just at election time) are projected to spend more on digital than traditional for the first time in 2019, eMarketer says.

[Image: courtesy of Tech For Campaigns]
Other interesting points:

  • Overall, Democratic and Republican campaigns and PACs spent only 2.7% to 5.1% of their total budgets on digital ads. About 50% of those budgets went to TV ads.
  • Winning 2018 campaigns on the Democratic side spent more on Facebook and Google specifically, while winning Republican campaigns relied about half and half on Google/Facebook versus other types of digital ads (Twitter, Instagram, others).
  • Google vs. Facebook: In 2018 federal races, Republicans spent 48% of their budgets on Google and 52% on Facebook, while Democrats favored Facebook over Google by 75% to 25%.
  • Looking at the top 15 Facebook/Google ad buyers at the federal level (including PACs) in 2018, only two were actual campaigns, and five have direct links to billionaires. The campaigns: Beto O’Rourke spent $9.9 million in 2018 for his failed Senate bid, while Donald Trump spent $7.8 million. The billionaires: In addition to Trump, Tom Steyer (NextGen, Need to Impeach) spent $6.7 million, Reid Hoffman (News for Democracy) spent $5.6 million, the Koch brothers (Americans for Prosperity) spent $4.5 million, and JB Pritzker spent $4.1 million.

One of the most on-point findings of the study is that mobile and social media users expect authenticity from candidates, and they’ll reward them if they see it.

After reviewing the efficacy of 2018 political ads, TFC found that “selfie” ads (where the candidate talks directly to a smartphone camera) are both cheaper to run than traditional video, and more clickable. TFC says it costs campaigns 20% less to get a million views of a selfie video (and 70% less to find someone to click on it) compared to professionally shot videos or TV ads repurposed for digital consumption.

Social media feels more personal than TV. The layer of gloss over a broadcast TV ad may only create a barrier to connection on Facebook or Twitter. And that, in a nutshell, may be the power of digital ads in politics. It’s narrowcasting, not broadcasting. Campaigns have a chance to make the kind of personal connections that last, and that get people out to the polls on election day. The Trump campaign is very, very good at this, so its big investment in digital is no surprise.

You can read TFC’s full report here.

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Tech For Campaigns is a San Francisco-based nonprofit that pairs tech-savvy volunteers with Democratic campaigns that need their skills.

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