Separate, Maybe More Equal

The time has come for political advertisers to demand different treatment in the digital buying space.

In the analog world, political campaigns enjoy special treatment that brand advertisers don’t. TV stations set political rates for candidate ads. Election-oriented mail is red tagged by the post office.

But in the digital arena, political is just another brand silo – and an intermittent one at that. So all the problems that have plagued automated programmatic ad buying – fraud, black box placement, misuse of targeting data, malicious and underhanded behavior – also affect political sales.

Now, before we dive into why political needs its own digital marketplace, let’s state the obvious: There are two kinds of political campaigns. Presidential and everything else.

Presidential campaigns are the types of ad campaigns that digital ad platforms understand because they are like brand campaigns. They represent millions of dollars in spending; they occur in a variety of markets, and because the work is on a national scale, the use of targeting and parsing work as it should. Presidential campaigns are flashy, fun and can land the CEOs a White House dinner invitation.

Everything else – state house races, local campaigns, even Senate races – isn’t anywhere near as exciting or lucrative. So, unlike presidential campaigns, they get short shrift. There are some platforms with dedicated ad sales folks, sure. And they sell up and down the food chain. But once an ad is sold, it goes into the brand mix – there’s no assurance that any of the targeting, time or even pricing set in the insertion order gets executed.

Which is why this New York Times article is an important read.

Referring to the changes that Apple and Google are making (or announcing they will make) to protect user privacy, readers are warned.

“The developments may seem like technical tinkering, but they were connected to something bigger: an intensifying battle over the future of the internet. The struggle has entangled tech titans, upended Madison Avenue and disrupted small businesses. And it heralds a profound shift in how people’s personal information may be used online, with sweeping implications for the ways that businesses make money digitally.”

In other words, what’s worked for the past two elections won’t work next year. Really.

Techniques that are going by the wayside include anything that deal in personal information. And voter information IS personal information.

Here’s a list of soon-to-be obsolete political outreach strategies: voter-matched ad targeting, newsletter fundraising, donor re-targeting, micro-targeting ads using demographic information, mobile device ID targeting and the ability to track users from one device to another.

Political advertisers like to argue that they can’t be treated the same as brand advertisers because they have smaller budgets raised on shorter time frames with a hard election day ‘close’. That’s one good set of reasons why the digital market needs to be adjusted for political ad outreach.

Here’s another: Political ads are about influence. It doesn’t really affect the public trust if a lot of people see an ad for a soda brand that doesn’t exist. It does matter if they see – and are persuaded by – ads that defame a candidate. Or if a platform agrees to carry one type of ad but not another. Or if a platform agrees to carry one candidate’s ads but not their rival’s. All of these things have happened to campaigns.

Clearly, it’s time for political advertisers to ask to be treated differently. Instead of buying video and banner ads via black box exchanges or platforms, political ad buyers should have a system similar to the post office’s red tag where they go to the front of the buyers’ line and get special treatment.

If political were segregated from brand advertising, it might re-open the door to micro-targeting and other forms of identifying voters as campaigns do with political mail. A system that’s separate from brand advertising might be permitted more leeway in using data for the very reasons that TV and the post office make exception for campaigns – because the goal is to talk to voters.

That’s not something that’s likely to happen overnight and there are plenty of party divisions that might preclude a solution. But the idea that digital is a separate type of ad outreach is one that might solve some of the chaos that’s threatening to ensue – and could prevent some of the problems we’ve already seen.

Spot-On has long believed in the segregation of political and brand advertising. We told the Federal Election Commission as much in 2018. And we’ve built an ad buying platform that takes a step in that direction by allowing political and advocacy ad buyers – and only those types of buyers – to place ads on local and national news sites.

We’ll be showing it off publicly at the AAPC’s Las Vegas conference and talking about how we think a new digital marketplace should function.

Drop us a line, and we’ll get you on the schedule.