The New Era of Political Advertising

Monique Taylor, Assistant Media Planner

Political advertising is changing. Viewers are starting to tune out of TV and TV ad effectiveness is likewise starting to decline. Instead, these “cord-cutters” can be hard to reach outside of digital channels. With this shift, the decades-long dominance of TV for spreading political messages may be coming to an end.


According to the polls, that may not be a bad thing. There seems to be an inverse relationship to advertising spend and success in the polls. For example, GOP front-runner Donald Trump spent no money on advertising in 2015, Jeb Bush, on the other hand, has already spent millions on advertising and continues to trail far behind in national polls.  


There are several theories that attempt to explain this change. From voters growing immune to the same tactics being employed over and over each election, to people just not watching as much TV as they used to. Either way, the fact remains that TV advertising isn’t working as well for candidates anymore.


However, don’t expect TV to reach its demise anytime soon. Regardless of the declining effectiveness of TV, 70% of political advertising spend still goes to TV and it is estimated that about $4.4 billion will be spent on TV during the 2016 election season. That’s up from $3.8 billion during the 2012 campaign.


So why keep investing in a system that doesn’t seem to be working?  “We’re doing it because we have to’’ explains John Philip Sousa IV, head of the super PAC supporting candidate Ben Carson.  In what the New York Times describes as the “ad wars” of the 2016 election, competing candidates are continuously spending millions on TV advertising, so opting out is a risk no one is willing to take. With primary season underway, even Trump is stepping into the TV arena. He recently said he’d spend about $2 million a week in three early voting states, telling reporters "I don't want to take any chances."


Still, the future for political advertising on TV looks grim. Consulting firm Borrell Associates predicts that after 2016, “broadcast TV’s fall from political ad spending grace will be breathtaking.’’ Digital may be taking its place, especially through programmatic (see our past blog post, Programmatic Politics 2016 here). As well as through social media. Snapchat, in particular, has become a popular channel for 2016 candidates trying to reach millennials. In total, political spend on digital ads is expected to pass $1 billion for the first time this election. As digital advertising spend increases, Borrell estimates that TV will have lost almost 14 share points by 2020.

As societal changes continue to move people away from TV and into the digital world, it only makes sense that digital spend for politicians is on the rise. If TV continues to underperform for politicians, it could be digital’s time to shine.