Buckle Up for a Contentious Ride

What this year’s political cycle will mean for advertising

While the US goes through a presidential election every four years, 2020 will ultimately be different from every other election cycle, and I’m not just talking about COVID-19. Since 2016, new media opportunities have emerged and been adopted faster than regulation has adjusted, making the media mix available to influence voter decision making (i.e. change behavior) more diverse and less transparent to the public than ever before.

Some media companies and entertainment industry publications estimated earlier this summer that $15 billion would be spent on political advertising across all political levels (national, federal, state and local) – including the $1 billion that was spent prior to the most expensive Democratic Primary in history, which included $750 million spent by Mike Bloomberg alone. If the spend level proves true, it will be almost double the $8 billion spent during the 2018 midterm elections and 63% higher than the $9.8 billion spent on elections in 2016.

Politico estimates roughly $2.2 billion of the 2020 political spend will be on the presidential general election (September through election day). Traditional media activations are still expected to receive the lion’s share of this money, but digital advertising spend is expected to be more than double the 2018 midterm elections, outpacing the growth of its traditional counterparts.

As candidates leverage different campaign strategies and media mixes in order to influence their core target audiences, there are arguably two audiences that could be election defining – the current “undecided” or “swing voter.”

The undecided voter as of late August accounts for roughly 10% of prospective voters in the 2020 election (down from 20% at the same time in the 2016 campaign). 

While the exact scale of swing voters is argued by different researchers and research institutes, the common consensus is that the swing vote could be larger in 2020 than in 2016.  A “swing voter” in the 2020 election is defined in one of two ways – a voter who votes opposite the party of their 2016 vote, or a voter who sat out in the 2016 election but is voting in 2020. In order to influence the swing voter, candidates will need to reach them on their terms and in the media spaces that matter to them. What makes this challenge interesting in 2020 is not only COVID’s impact on media consumption, but also the evolution of media since 2016.  Many platforms that could be instrumental today to help influence voters either weren’t around in 2016, or didn’t exist in the capacity they do today – think additional media consumption fragmentation, as well as technology advancements.

Media Consumption Habits

Our previous analysis of media consumption changes in light of COVID-19 identified higher streaming and digital usage for on-demand needs and less usage of traditional media.  However, the country continues to be in a state of flux regarding daily routines as employers range from business as usual to full remote work through Summer 2021.  When you look at today’s media options and overall usage compared to 2016, the world is vastly different.

To give us a point of comparison, we’ve looked into adults under 35 who vote in presidential elections and examined their media consumption habits based on media quintiles and digital activities. Combining Scarborough Research data across the state of Virginia for our “under 35 voters,” we find not only that media adoption has increased across all streaming and social platforms, but the researcher’s questions regarding digital classification and usage are different as well.

For instance, the 2020 survey posed the question “what streaming services have you visited/used in the past 30 days,” but this question didn’t exist in 2016. Instead, Scarborough had all streaming under “what internet sites have you visited/apps have you used in the past 30 days.” While these might seem like subtle or semantic differences to the average person, it makes a world of difference in the paid media space – for strategy and tactics alike. Another example, 2016’s site list options included things like Ask.com, eBay, Google+, MTV, and TV Guide which no longer exist or appear on the survey in 2020. This year’s site list includes options like Stitcher, YouTube TV (subscription) RetailMeNot and Snapchat which weren’t part of the consideration set and/or didn’t exist in 2016. The reasons for streaming was also included in 2020 where it didn’t exist in 2016 (i.e. news, breaking news, listen/download audio podcasts, movies, sports, live TV or prerecorded TV).

Layered on top of the research that does exist is the knowledge that by the time the research comes out, it’s sometimes already out of date. For instance, the latest surveys don’t include information or research on a lot of new platforms that have strong followings including TikTok, Twitch, Quibi, Byte and Animal Crossing which has been eyed and utilized by many political figures already.

The point of all this is to say that media is different today than four years ago. It will continue to evolve as new offerings are added to existing platforms, new platforms are introduced to the public and time is allowed for user adoption. Additionally – yes, I’m pulling the COVID-19 card – media consumption this year is just all over the place.

What does it mean for the next six weeks?

Political advertising will be picking up in every medium that exists. While traditional activations will see increases because the overall spend is higher, streamers and digital users will see an exponential increase in political advertising compared to previous election cycles.

Candidates may be taking an agile approach given COVID restrictions, their target audience’s changing media consumption habits, and the messaging to influence potential undecided voters.

As brands have reduced their advertising spends in 2020 due to COVID, candidates may see opportunities to take advantage of “flash sales” or overall lower prices of media space compared to past election years. This theory simply illustrates the principles of supply and demand within the paid media space.

Consumers will no longer be able to circumvent political messaging the way they could in 2016 by cord-cutting or avoiding traditional advertising platforms. This is not necessarily just because candidates have increased their media spends, but is more likely due to a loop-hole that exists allowing spending in the digital space with less transparency. Leading up to the 2016 elections, jumping to a platform like Hulu or Pandora or Spotify may have been a reprieve, but in 2020, candidates and their supporters have shifted their strategies leveraging these platforms that are not require to disclose advertising investment details.

For traditional broadcast entities, the Federal Exchange Commission (FEC) requires radio and television stations to maintain publicly available information regarding ad spending associated with candidates.  This includes costs, time slots and programs in which ads appeared and is a record of where the money is coming from and where it is going. For advertising that runs online, this information and record is not currently required as regulations or requirements have not kept pace with new options and technology available. Some companies like Facebook and Google have already voluntarily created online libraries of political advertising on their platforms in the interest of transparency and to try to minimize public backlash. Unfortunately, the regulations or requirements have not kept pace with new options and technology available.

Minimizing political advertising exposure in 2020 will be very challenging as candidates find new ways to extend their campaign messages to reach voters. Marketers who test and optimize on existing and emerging platforms will find opportunities to promote all the call-to-actions a candidate could possibly need (vote for me, donate to my campaign, here is my service record or what I’ve done for the community, this is what I want to do for my constituents). The biggest question I have for upcoming elections is will the FEC update their regulations regarding public disclosure to include digital entities beyond email to include all digital entities? That change alone could have a significant impact on how political dollars are spent in the future.