Any family that decides to surf channels on the TV to watch the news, sports, or a movie in the fall of an election year will undoubtedly be inundated with political advertisements. With an especially contentious midterm on the horizon, one can expect this wave of advertising to be larger than any previous midterm. Cook Political Report projects that roughly $3.3 billion will be spent on television advertising alone. Yet, as candidates prepare to empty their wallets for a 30-second slot after the big football game, television advertising is becoming less and less attractive. This is because the practice of television advertising, especially in statewide, congressional, and local campaigns is wildly inefficient. Meanwhile, social media advertising is becoming increasingly targeted and cost-efficient.
When a candidate buys a TV ad, they buy a spot in what is called a Designated Market Area (DMA). A DMA is essentially a collection of channels offered to a geographic area, often centered around a large city. Much to the dismay of politicians and their pocketbooks, DMAs do not align neatly with congressional districts or even state boundaries. It is not uncommon for major portions of a politician’s constituency to be split between three, four, or even five media markets. The reverse is also true. Many media markets include seven or eight congressional districts; the New York City media market includes upward of 30. This means that to buy an advertisement spot in a DMA, politicians must pay for their ads to reach the entire DMA, while only a small percentage of viewers may be their constituents.
A terrific example of the inefficiency of TV advertising lies in Minnesota’s 1st congressional district (MN-1) which spans across the border of southern Minnesota. It is a mixed urban and rural district that flipped from Obama to Trump and is expected to be highly competitive in 2018. MN-1 is split into five different DMAs: La Crosse, Mankato, Minneapolis, Rochester, and Sioux Falls—all of which cover not only other congressional districts, but also parts of other states. Three of these districts have over 18 percent of the population of MN-1, and no two DMAs combined hold more than two-thirds of the population. While the population of MN-1 is under 670,000, broadcasts in the four DMAs with the most MN-1 constituents would cover a greater number of people than those that live in the entire state of Minnesota (population 5.52 million).
While MN-1 faces the issue of a divided district, New Jersey’s 11th (NJ-11) district faces the opposite problem. NJ-11, a relatively wealthy suburban district with a retiring Republican incumbent, is expected to be another close race. The entirety of NJ-11 is in New York City’s DMA. In order to run an ad, any candidate would need to pay for an ad spot that would be broadcasted to over 20 million people. Statewide campaigns, though not as harshly affected, are also impacted by DMAs. In Georgia, 9 of the state’s 11 DMAs flow over state boundaries; in Indiana 8 of the 10 are not contained within the state’s borders. While certain states and congressional districts fit neatly into DMAs, in most cases the method of television advertising is wildly inefficient.
Adding to all of this inefficiency is the fact that, while TV ads continue to reach an important demographics of voters, advancement in social media advertising and the broadening of its user base has made political social media advertising a much more viable option. Social media advertising can be highly targeted to an individual’s interests, age, political affiliations, and location, all of which allows candidates to target their base, independents, or supporters of the opposition as needed. Additionally, the cost of social media advertising is scaled to the number of individuals that view or interact with the ad. This metric is called Cost Per Thousand Impressions (CPM), and it makes social media advertising far more cost-efficient than TV advertising.
The latest high-profile candidate to utilize the power of social media is Beto O’Rourke, a Democratic candidate for Senate in Texas going toe-to-toe with incumbent Ted Cruz in fundraising. O’Rourke, who was advised by consultants to launch his campaign with a TV ad, decided instead to launch on Facebook live. O’Rourke has since captured a series of live videos from his campaign road trip around Texas, including a 24-hour live stream that covered late night and early morning town halls as well as an MSNBC interview. While O’Rourke continues to poll several points behind Cruz, he has managed to cultivate an image through his social media campaign of a candidate that is not “poll-tested,” not beholden to special interests, and willing to tackle issues in an unconventional manner. This image has elevated him to the national stage and has allowed him to close the financial gap between him and Cruz, raising nearly $8 million. O’Rourke’s use of social media advertising to fundraise represents a new use of political advertising: one that does not directly seek to damage the opponent, but rather focuses energy on support for a candidate.
However, Beto O’Rourke’s campaign is not nearly the most sophisticated social media campaign to date. That title goes to Donald Trump. Outspent almost two to one by the Clinton Campaign, the Trump Campaign turned to social media advertising. According to Brad Parscale, Digital Director of the Trump Campaign, roughly a third of the $300 million dollar advertising budget was spent on social media advertising. Roughly 80 percent of that ad budget was spent on Facebook advertising. With the campaign’s massive ad buy, Facebook deployed a team of advisors to the Trump campaign to help them utilize Facebook’s advertising platform to its maximum potential. Each day, the Trump campaign churned out tens of thousands of variations. When ads enter the Facebook market they continue to be promoted based on how many interactions they receive. By producing tens of thousands of ad variations, the Trump Campaign ensured that they could find the ad that would receive the most interaction and rise to the top of the Facebook ad markets. After important events such as debates, the campaign would produce as many as 175,000 variations of a single ad. Since Facebook’s bidding algorithm considers interaction rates alongside monetary bids, the ad variations that were heavily interacted not only reached more people, but also lowered the CPM costs for the Trump campaign. The Facebook advertising policy favored the Trump campaign, which mostly used interactive rather than informative ads. Parscale claims that in some cases the campaign had CPM rates of just “pennies.” Ultimately, the Trump campaign took advantage of Facebook’s advertising policies brilliantly in a social media campaign that, as Parscale argues, played a large role in Trump’s victory.
On February 27, 2018, Parscale was tapped as Campaign Manager for Trump’s 2020 campaign. The decision is undoubtedly a nod toward another digital heavy campaign. While television ads will certainly remain the dominant method of political advertising in the 2018 midterms, candidates using social media should not be underestimated. Candidates in congressional districts like MN-1 and NJ-11 should be wary of burning their budget on TV ads. The inefficiency and lure of TV advertising combined with a great potential for innovative forms of social media advertising allow an underfunded candidate to turn their fundraising deficit into an advertising advantage. While we are unlikely to see the death of TV advertising in the near future, social media advertising opens the door for a broad spectrum of possibilities in political advertising.