$11.7 billion: A Look Behind the Curtain of the Political Advertising Season

Sep 07, 2016

With my pinky on my lower lip doing my best Dr. Evil impression: “11.7 billion dollars!” That’s the estimated media spend this political season for the presidential election. It equates to $46 per eligible voter. TV still has the largest share of political spending with $5.9 billion, but digital advertising will exceed $1.2 billion—up 700% from 2012. The times are changing, and the candidates are shifting their tactics as they try to reach the eligible voter.

Total Political Ad Spend 2016

Campaigning to the Masses With TV Advertising

TV has always been the dominant platform for reaching the masses with political ads. But TV viewing habits are constantly evolving. Back in 1964, the first negative political ad, “Daisy,” aired on NBC, with messaging that was pro-Johnson and anti-Goldwater. Since then, political TV seasons have included a plethora of negative advertising. Today, with emergence and prominence of digital media, viewers have options—and rather than face the barrage of negative ads, they may choose not tune into the evening news and, instead, opt for reading their news online.

Now, I’m not saying people are opposed to ads and are leaving TV behind. Think about that big football game each February—some viewers tune in just to watch the commercials. If the ads are entertaining, creative and contain content that is relevant and timely, viewers will engage. Now that digital video is becoming more widespread, consumers may still see negative ads online, but the amount of back-to-back-to-back spots is limited. Services like Hulu and Netflix will surely see an uptick in viewers, and if escaping negative political ads is of interest, you can always go to the movie theater. National CineMedia does not accept political ads (and there are a lot of highly anticipated movies being released in September and October!).

The majority of TV advertising dollars will be placed on local broadcast stations versus national networks, concentrating on the major DMAs in the swing states. Buying advertising in key states locally is more cost efficient than a national buy. The political window does not even open until September 9, but since the conventions, Clinton’s campaign has spent $30 million for 18,111 spots on TV in Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, while Trump has yet to place a media buy. But why should he? According to an analytics report by mediaQuant, we’ve already provided Trump with nearly $3.5 billion in earned media.

Reaching Local Voters on the Radio and Out of Home

Voters also aren’t shying away from the radio, and the political advertising spend is up this election season from 2012. However, we’re seeing more placements from local races than from presidential campaigns. There are 12 states with governor races this season, including swing states North Carolina and New Hampshire, where Senate races are also in motion. Direct mail and out-of-home will also benefit from local races, as candidates look to reach their core audience with their message.

Engaging Voters With Social Media

Social media is playing a bigger role in election season, and it’s interesting to watch how candidates activate their fans and followers on the campaign trail. In 2008, when Facebook was still only recently widely available, Obama successfully used social media to support his campaign and connect with voters. By the time the 2012 election season rolled around, Obama dominated Romney on social media: on election night, Obama had 32 million followers on Facebook and 21 million on Twitter, in comparison to Romney’s 12 million followers on Facebook and 1.7 million Twitter followers. Does social media dominance win the campaign?

This election season, Trump is already leading the social scene with 10 million followers on Facebook and 11 million on Twitter, in comparison to Clinton’s 5 million Facebook followers and 8.3 million Twitter followers. Trump has shared 32,000 tweets to Clinton’s 7,000—and the most interesting part is that he does his own tweeting.

Social media has a role at the very beginning of a presidential campaign, as an effective way to spread the word about a new candidate. The Commission on Presidential Debates requires a candidate to have at least 15% of support in the national polls to qualify for inclusion in debates, and in order to reach those credentials, Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson has taken to Facebook to drum up donations. As of the writing of this article, Johnson has 1.1 million Facebook followers, and has raised more in donations than his $1.5 million goal.

Political advertising has come a long way from the days of Austin Powers. In the 1960s, $1 million was a lot of money and political candidates campaigned by riding through town on the backseat of a convertible. As we watch (or avoid) all of the advertising this political season, rest assured that come November 9 we will all be saying, “Yeah baby, yeah!”

—Julia McCray, Senior Media Planner/Buyer