The Last Dance?

If you’re reading this, chances are good that the majority of your digital ad spending this election cycle has gone through what are known as programmatic ad buying platforms. After all, most political ad dollars are being spent that way.

But this may be the last cycle where the freewheeling no-holds-barred programmatic market serves political as though it’s just another brand silo.

The omens have been building for a while. First, there’s a lot of conflicting messaging in the marketplace. Hulu’s ban on ads with guns or any abortion-related messaging is one indicator. So is Spotify’s decision to not take political, as they once said they would. Some platforms review creative. Some don’t. Some allow micro-targeting using voter data linked to other information. Some do not. Facebook won’t take ads immediately before the election. Everyone else will.

No one likes this system. And until the money spent on digital political ads got real – it’s about $1 billion this year – no one much cared. But that’s changing.

This study from the University of North Carolina’s Center on Technology Policy follows a look by the New America Foundation in 2018. In both cases, former employees at digital platforms – in this case Facebook – authored white papers showing how programmatic ad buying is rife with confusion, chicanery and chaos. Put another way: It’s not just Facebook anymore.

So what’s next? More than ever, it depends on the outcome of this year’s election. If Democrats manage to hold on to the U.S. House, it’s likely that the election reform package known as the “Honest Ads Act” will be passed once again and headed to the U.S. Senate. If Democrats increase their majority in the Senate, the bill is likely to receive a much warmer reception than it did in earlier years.

The sorts of reforms envisioned by the bill, as it was written, are also easy to slip into any sort of Big Tech break-up legislation. They’ll also fit nicely into laws designed to protect consumer privacy. That’s three bites at the regulatory apple.

This is all bad news if you’re counting on the voter match targeting you’ve been relying on to actually reach voters. But it could be good news if Congress realizes it can create the ability to target voters responsibly.

As currently written, privacy laws will make that all but impossible. Big Tech break-ups will continue to hamper the ability of those companies to watch users move from one suite of products to another (say, Apple TV to iPhone or YouTube to search). The result: Campaigns’ ability to follow and target voters – already weakened – falls apart entirely. As of right now, there are no carve-outs for political targeting, mostly likely because elected officials have no idea how their campaigns find voters online.

Spot-On has long advocated for the segregation of brand advertising from political ad sales. That’s how political ads are handled by TV stations. It’s how political mail is treated by the U.S. Post Office. And it’s probably what most members of Congress think happens with their digital ads. Actually digital segregation of political ads buying and selling could allow campaigns to use the data they have about voters – they data they use to send mail and decide on TV placements and field outreach – to better effect. A system that uses voter data that’s independent and sealed off from use by brand advertisers would mean political target of digital could become more effective, reliable, safe and secure.

Here at Spot-On, we’re not just talking. We’re walking. Our Pinpoint Persuasion platform is coming soon. We’ll have targeting by election district and zip code. And lots of census and other data. We’re ready for the future.

Are you?