Spot-On 2020: A Rough Ride

Are you getting that sneaky feeling that maybe – just maybe – the online political ad market is getting more unsettled? That this year – oh, why THIS year – is the one where the changes come fast and furious without warning? 

Reluctantly, Spot-On agrees. From our point-of-view there are three hot spots: privacy law changes, election oversight changes and wildly inconsistent market responses. But, as they say, forewarned is forearmed. So here’s a quick look ahead.


California has enacted new privacy legislation which took effect on January 1. There is a six month grace period but most companies doing business in the state – the ones that aren’t making noises about suing – are making preparations. Among them, large visible signs on websites that say “Don’t sell my data” and more visible privacy policies, cookie tracking and other notices.

That “don’t sell” option means that a site – and its data partners – can’t collect as much information about users as they have in the past. So the data pools (also called ‘3rd party data’) used to fuel the impact of voter targeted ads will become less reliable. An example: while writing this, I responded to an email from Alaska Airlines and told them not to implement “social cookies” that would help them show me ads on Facebook and Twitter (and allow Twitter and Facebook to know more about my travel choices).

It is a myth that voter targeted digital ads rely only on voter data. Voter targeting cannot work alone because using some voter information is prohibited. To function, voter data is combined with other data sets – that 3rd party data. A deterioration in the quality that data affects the accuracy of voter registration targeting.

It’s not just California; at least 10 other states are considering various privacy measures.

Election Law/Proposals

A great deal of fuss has been made about Federal Election Commission Chair Ellen Weintraub’s seemingly successful request to ban the use of ‘micro-targeting’ for political ad placements. “Micro-targeting” is the phrase used to describe the use of voter registration combined with specific web behavior data to send ads to particular demographic groups. 

Google grabbed a lot of attention when it said it would follow Weintraub’s recommendations. Starting this week, the Mississippi River of Ad Tech will not permit political ads on YouTube or search or display to be targeted below the geographic level (by zip) with some limited demographic information. 

Other firms are opting out entirely. Spotify, which was never equipped to handle the nuances of political ad sales has withdrawn completely. Good thing, too. They laughed in 2016 when Spot-On told them they needed a decision making structure. So has Twitter and the Chinese-owned TikTok.

But it’s worth asking if these public pronouncement are reliable. Some of this is lip-service and nothing more as Google has demonstrated in regard to state election laws.

Market Responses – Or Not

Facebook has declined to follow Google’s lead on microtargeting – and is challenging the California privacy laws – so smaller players have felt free to follow the flow of political ad dollars.

Third party entities that sell online ads are not complying with the suggested prohibition on micro-targeting. If Spot-On wants to microtarget political ads, we can. So can anyone else. Whether those ads are ‘quality’ placements is an open question. Our bet: They’re not. Which means campaigns will pay more for less effective ads.

Now Add Billionaires….

There’s gasoline to pour on this fire. Three billionaires are running for president. 

And brand advertisers aren’t going to treat political advertisers any differently. They’re going to ‘tier’ advertisers based on spend, for starters. And even without preferred treatment, wealthier campaigns will bid up the prices for ads, putting the less well-heeled at a disadvantage – even for junky inventory.

So here’s the hottest spot of all: Fair and consistent decisions make for fair and consistent elections. Inconsistent decisions made as a way to compensate for regulatory oversight make for, let’s call them….misunderstandings. 

Deliberately or not, consistency has gone out the window. Used to trafficking brand ads, the platforms don’t understand that setting requirements on tone or style, letting ‘the market’ dictate price or optimization is endorsing one form of political speech or point-of-view over another. In short, digital ad platforms are unprepared for the clear, consistent decision process that needs to be part of political ad sales

There’s More…But We’re Out of Time

Facebook is facing 48 state attorney general investigations. Google has 50. More Congressional oversight is in the works. The Federal Trade Commission is looking around; so is the U.S. Department of Justice.

So buckle up. All campaigns are going to be affected by these changes. And almost no one’s going to like it.

Spot-On’s got some ideas on how you can work through this mess. Start with a look at our 2020 Best Practices White Paper which takes a look at some of the problems ahead. Then drop us a note and we’ll set you up with a media plan that works. 

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