In this age of “dark money,” it is impossible to determine precisely how much money is spent disseminating media, but it is the lion’s share of campaign-related expenditures.
The way people consume media is in the midst of a paradigm shift – the way the majority of the electorate receives media content ten years from now will be very different than it was ten years ago. Television, particularly with the potential to reach specific people’s cable boxes with “addressable” advertising, is still the dominant medium today, with only approximately 20% of the media budgets going to digital media.1 (This is a significantly lower portion than in commercial advertising, where digital is projected by some to surpass TV by 2018.2)
The Millennial generation will become the dominant (potential) voting block in the next decade, however, and they are not paying as much attention to television advertising as Boomers are. As the number of cord-cutters increases, the thinking is that much campaign ad spending will simply move online. The norms, policies, and practices in the digital space are still quite fluid. And as one of our experts said, the digital space is much more of a “Wild West,” with much less transparency over how much is spent and what is being said by whom, when compared to television.
In recent years, there has been tremendous growth in the adoption of ad blocking software that prevents your browser from displaying advertisements. It is still only a very small fraction of the public that uses such software, but ad blocking software has the potential to significantly diminish the efficacy of online advertising if it grows in popularity, and its use is much more common amongst Millennials, with 41 percent saying they used a browser-based ad blocking software, according to one study.3
Research suggests that people are more influenced by content that is shared with them by people they know than by online advertisements. Through online sharing platforms, it is now possible for videos to reach millions of people without any distribution costs. Having a passionate and active network of constituents (similar to the party bases) is increasingly valuable as a mode of disseminating content; firms are also getting more sophisticated at understanding and manipulating individuals’ decisions around sharing, and individuals who are strongly networked are getting compensated to help amplify certain content. So this is not a purely People Powered domain. Moreover, a key value of paid advertising is that you can place media in front of people who would not be exposed to it otherwise; so a critical challenge for shared media, if it is to compete in value with paid media, is reaching beyond networks of people who are already seeing it because they are in what some call a “filter bubble.” Having network maps of individuals’ “social graphs” (relationships) would give a critical boost to the efficacy of social media based distribution. But there are still obstacles related to social norms. Many people, particularly “Interested Bystanders”4, are uncomfortable sharing controversial or provocative political advertisements with their friends, families, and co-workers.
Earned media coverage by the media used to represent a more significant counter-weight to paid media, particularly in House races. Most local media networks have seen their audiences and revenues plummet in the last decade, however. The conventional thinking has been that the most effective way to slow the decline and keep viewers’ attention is to offer more sensationalized content. The resulting focus on scandals and controversies has arguably contributed to the sense of cynicism amongst the electorate. It has also increased many candidates’ reluctance (particularly incumbents) to take the risk of engaging with the media when they can control their message so closely via their advertisements. Despite producing more sensationalized content, the long-term trends are not changing for most of these media outlets. They recognize that they desperately need to find a way to engage younger audiences, and some are now beginning to look at more radical changes. The diversity and creativity of applicants to the recent Knight News Challenge (which sought to support projects that “provide voters with better information and increase their participation before, during, and after elections”) indicates how fertile this space is for innovation in the coming years. If earned media venues could figure out how to engage their audiences more effectively, then that could decrease candidates’ reliance on paid media.
Currently there is no perceived limit to how much a candidate should spend on television advertising. In competitive races, fundraising arms races can be accentuated by the perverse incentives many ad buyers have, as they are often paid per ad placed. There is some research suggesting that there could be diminishing rates of return after advertisements reach a certain level of penetration, but it is rare to find a candidate who is willing to let her opponent significantly outspend her on advertising if she has the choice.
Co-Founder, Echelon Insights / Former Leading Digital Strategist, the Republican National Committee
The cost of television is the primary barrier to entry in who runs for office and gets perceived as “viable.” The imperative of fully funding a TV campaign drives fundraising, often from special interests who aren’t broadly representative. Yet evidence is mounting that TV is less and less effective, and simply adding more won’t solve the problem, particularly if the candidate is one whom voters simply won’t support. Candidates that do it differently — delivering a compelling message and first demonstrating strong grassroots support from voters — are the ones whose campaigns zoom past those focused on fundraising at the exclusion of everything else. Ironically, they usually end up raising more money — first from grassroots donors and then from big-money donors impressed by their rise in the polls.
Vice President, Strategic Communications and National Partnerships, PBS
In today’s media landscape, there’s no mainstream — there are many streams. These streams harness the power to reclaim the conversation. Too few people control too much money and power, and they’re using that control to rig the rules to protect and extend their privileges. This isn’t an accident. It isn’t an act of God. It isn’t due to forces of technology and globalization that can’t be changed. It isn’t a mistake. It is a power grab. The public is ready to reclaim its media.
Chief Revenue Officer, Media Group of America / Former Consultant, Republican Media and GOTV
There’s huge opportunity in the digital political space to 1) create a digital grassroots army that doesn’t rely solely on paid advertising 2) be more creative and relevant in the actual paid advertising that is running and 3) totally disrupt the way campaigns are managed and run. We’re moving to a world where people more connected than ever before – campaigns that wish to remain relevant and win will need to find creative ways to couple a very authentic candidate message with new forms of communicating.
CEO, FPPCO LLC (Forward Progress in Politics) / Former CEO, Americans Elect
Campaigns are ripe for even more disruption. ‘Political consultants’ aren’t driving this change. Innovators – entrepreneurs, tech, data and social media geniuses – are fundamentally transforming the way candidates and citizens are finding each other.
Vice President, Aspen Institute / Former Republican Member, Congress
This is one of the areas in which the incentives are most perverse – where it is common for the campaign consultants who do the ad-buying to get paid on a commission for how many ads they buy. So of course they are going to think you should buy more ads! Candidates are sometimes reluctant to dismiss the advice they receive from campaign experts, but it is important that we do not let the consultants dictate what kind of campaign we run.
Executive Director, Independent Lines Advocacy / Former Chief of Staff, Congressman Raul Ruiz
Campaigns, just like digital marketing for any product, are increasingly reliant on user-generated content and the influence of key allies to persuade their cohort. Political communication, even as it seeks more effective ROI through multiple mediums of communication, can also look to social nodes as critical components of the communications framework to make compelling, persuasive arguments to increasingly mistrustful and hard-to-reach targets.
Executive Director, NALEO – National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials
People consume information in many modes and languages, and understand issues across the political dynamic. Too often crafted messages miss the boat in reaching marginalized potential voters.
Executive Director, CounterPAC
I think there is great potential to increase our knowledge about the relative efficacy of various advertising media (e.g., broadcast v. digital) in terms of their ability to move voters. Clear demonstration that a particular medium is more effective at influencing voter opinion would surely cause a shift in dominant campaign practices. Problematically, however, I think that any kind of paid media will always beget a “spending war” approach as long as a sufficient marginal return is expected from its use. Demonstrating a saturation point for paid media seems like it could be a promising way to counteract this tendency, though just how much would depend on the level of spending at which the saturation occurred. With digital media becoming increasingly popular, it could be worth exploring whether it might be possible to seed some kind of culture change at the level of ad sales. Is there some way that the cost of ads might be more equalized by the entities selling them (a la Google’s nonprofit ad grant program)? Additionally, because political advertising begets so much public ire (especially broadcast advertising), perhaps there is potential for some kind of crowdsourced accountability fund that could be used to impose a political cost on candidates who make excessive use of these kinds of unpopular advertising tactics.
With the right tools and a smart strategy, campaigns could achieve massive reach through social media without needing a giant ad budget.
Associate Professor, University of Texas at Austin, / Director, Engaging News Project
The media play an important role in providing the public with information about campaigns. Working with the news media to empower the public during election campaigns strikes me as a valuable research agenda.
Executive Director, Take Back Our Republic / Campaign Manager, Dave Brat
Today we hear a lot of talk about the “establishment” wing of the parties. What we don’t talk as much about is the “establishment” wings of the campaign sector that often have a monopoly on campaign contracts regardless of their performance. Ad buying is one of the areas most skewed by these insider deals and least accountable to merit-based assessment.
All answers: 1 = strongly disagree / 5 = strongly agree
How much do the conventional tactics for achieving this objective influence how reliant campaigns feel on narrow subsets as opposed to broad cross-sections of the electorate?
How much do you think the tactics for achieving this objective are likely to change in the coming decade?
How much opportunity do you see for advancing more People Powered tactics for achieving this objective via each lever?
Increase People Powered ROI
Decrease Conventional ROI