Yes We Can... Learn From Political Advertisements

Blog Political Advertisements

And even avoid the mudslinging and propaganda

You know a political ad when you see one. They have some obvious tells. They feature a stern-faced politician who shakes a lot of hands and kisses a few babies… and then looks stoically into a cornfield. They are, for all intents and purposes, boring and predictable. But it is worthwhile to look at where political campaigns are spending money and why it’s part of their media buying strategy.

Current projections suggest that during the 2018 midterms, political candidates are set to spend nearly 9 billion dollars on advertisements. That’s a lot of freaking money. While political ads may not be paragons of honesty, they can be a good indicator of audience — as in where to find your audience. Political campaigns, like advertising campaigns, are just looking to attract as many eyes and ears as possible. So, if we look at where politicians are investing money in ads, we can see where they — and their strategists — believe those dollars can achieve the maximum impact.

TV is still on top… for now

Politicians are expected to invest $3.5 billion into broadcast TV with another $1.1 billion in cable television. That’s more than half of the overall projected budget placed on TV advertisements. This, at a glance, may seem high, but on average U.S. adults primarily watch TV through a cable or satellite subscription, especially older adults (50+ years old). So why invest in television ads so heavily? Because — in the past anyway — older people are more likely to vote. Translation: that’s a major target audience. Is your target audience older? If yes, TV is probably (one of) the right media buys for you.

Digital — duh

Despite some recent bouts with bad PR, digital outlets will account for $1.8 billion in ad buys during the election cycle. Compared to television, this spend seems small, but $1.8 billion is still a massive investment and it’s also worth noting that marketers (and politicians) get more from their budget with digital. And, political campaigns aside, digital spending passed TV for the first time in 2017. Seeing as how our eyes are sucked into laptop screens and our phones are embedded in our palms, this should surprise no one.

The budget-friendly nature of digital media is only part of the reason why digital ads (political and otherwise) are effective. The audience is, well, nearly everyone. Mom is on Instagram. Grandma is a Facebooking machine. Your nephew is a Twitter maestro. In fact, almost 80 percent of people under the age of 50 get some of their news from social media and, while it’s a bit creepy, social media platforms can target specific groups of people based on interests, age, gender and so on.

(Of course, this approach can, we hope, be used for less nefarious purposes and help connect people with useful products or services instead of, say, toxic propaganda from both sides of the aisle.)

And the rest of the field?

A quick glance at the numbers makes it clear that TV and digital media are the majority of the ad buy, but political campaigns do invest elsewhere, though not as heavily. Here’s how the rest of the media buy shakes out:

When it comes to political advertising, video didn’t kill the radio star — it just took the majority of the budget. Radio ad buys in 2018 are estimated to reach $683 million. With online radio and podcasts growing in popularity, it’d be easy to view radio advertising as a risky proposition, but the opposite is actually true — radio is pretty consistent and flexible. In 2017, 90 percent of Americans (ages 12 and older) listened to terrestrial radio on a weekly basis. While the audience varies from station to station, one thing is clear: most people listen to the radio.

Newspaper ad buys are estimated to reach $619 million in spending. What’s interesting about the newspaper audience is that, like radio, it transcends demographics. In 2016, it was found that 169 million adults read a newspaper at least once a month. What’s even more interesting is how people are reading the newspaper: Millennials and Gen-X are more likely to read digital versions while Boomers and the Greatest Generation prefer print — shocking, right? It is, however, an important distinction. When placing an ad in a news outlet, there are options for digital ads, print ads or both. So, depending on your audience, you’ll want to make the right buy to achieve the best reach. If you’re targeting the 65+ demographic, smart money sticks with print.

Direct mail
So what about direct mail? That’s predicted to cost a total of $223 million. There are two things to learn from political direct mail: 1. There does seem to be value in it — after all, it is amounting to a quarter of a billion dollar spend; 2. Look at how they’re designed and do better than that. Printed materials can be truly stunning and incredibly artistic. Since direct mail is still (for now) effective, why not develop pieces that call attention to themselves and increase the likelihood of making an impact? Unlike political ads which, regardless of party affiliation, are ugly and practically beg to be thrown in the trash.

This can be a lot of things, but election season just wouldn’t be the same without those awkward robocalls (telemarketing — $498 million) and imposing billboards with stern faces (out-of-home advertising — $400 million). Between these two types of marketing, politicians are investing almost a billion dollars, so there is some value there. That said, political campaigns are uniquely tailored to these mediums: short slogans, people-driven and with a simple ask. Is your product right for either of these strategies? Depends. Do you have a close relationship with your customers? If yes, telemarketing might work. Do you have a succinct message that can be read at 60 miles per hour? Yes? Then consider billboards an option. If political campaigns are investing millions of dollars in both telemarketing and out- of-home marketing, then they must be effective… if you have the right strategy or message.

Learn from political ads, but don’t be like them

It’s fair to say that, no matter how you identify politically, the current state of the American body politic is a full-blown vitriolic inferno, but we don’t have to dirty our hands in order to gain insight — just look at the audiences they target, where they’re targeted and why. You don’t have to be soliciting a vote to understand voter demographics and how politicians target each using different types of media. If political advertising tells us anything, it’s that people are tuned in and, with the right approach, easy to reach.

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