As the day of the highly anticipated and hotly contested U.S. presidential election arrives, both major parties agree that the national and global impact of its outcome will last for generations. For the first time ever, political ad spend is projected to exceed a massive $11 billion–more than the GDP of 54 countries worldwide!
A month before Election Day, Media Post reported that the Biden campaign “spent just over $32 million on Facebook and Google ads, while Trump has spent over $23 million.” That does not include digital ad spends in issue campaigns or other federal, state, and county elections throughout the country.
While the election is pivotal for countless communities and environmental contexts that have been in question throughout the debates, the sheer volume of political ad spend is also pivotal for media communications and digital advertising industries.
Silence of the giants: media companies and bans on digital political ads
One of the most significant developments within political marketing and digital ad space has revolved around media giants like Facebook. According to marketing research collaborative Insider Intelligence in early 2020, “Google and Facebook already control 60.8% of the total US digital ad market. And when it comes to the duopoly’s share of digital political ad revenues, it has an even tighter grip, with a combined 77.6% this election cycle.”
Facebook holds nearly 60% of that political digital ad market compared to Google’s 18%, and the social media giant has been pressured for years to revise its political ad policies to combat disinformation and protect user data. Presidential candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden advocated that the government consider legislation to break up mega tech companies. Meanwhile, Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey said of his platform’s outright ban on political digital ads: “political message reach should be earned, not bought.”
What happens in the legislative space will be determined by this election, but even if politicians do not intervene to break up major tech companies, it is still possible the digital political ad market will be completely changed.
Despite the millions of political ad dollars spent through its platform this year, Facebook is finally caving to years of pressure with its company at the center of scandals and debates about democracy, digital ads, and personal data. Taking the issue into its own hands, Facebook announced restrictions on political ads in the month prior to the election and a complete ban on political ads after polls close today.
When and how that company policy will change is still to be determined, and for many…that is precisely the problem. Transparency, consistent platform and industry rules, and data protection within digital political marketing currently relies on the ethics of major companies–which could differ from organization to organization, or even leadership team to leadership team within the same company over time.
“Unlike TV, print, and mailed political ads, which can’t target you nearly as well and are regulated by Federal Election (FEC) and the Federal Communications (FCC) Commissions, the online political ad world is largely unregulated. That means it’s up to companies like Facebook and Google to make their own rules governing the deluge of political ads we’re all seeing, and there’s no guarantee they’ll make decisions that protect our democracy,” argued Vox in September. If legislation does not break up tech-giants or demand a total prohibition of digital political ads, it could still consider new political communications laws through governing bodies like the FCC in years to come.
Before then, if Facebook and other companies at some point continue allowing digital political ads, questions remain about whether it will be possible to draw clear lines between political ad content, ballot issue informational content, and voter education materials for future elections–or whether the company and others like it will find themselves facing controversy around privately arbitrating between political candidates, media access, and issue campaigns.
Digital ads decrease incumbency advantages and create space for increased voter engagement – or voter suppression
Although Pew Research Center indicated that a slight majority of Americans believe all social media platforms should censor digital political ads, this may stem more from data issues and ad fatigue than from the actual impact of ads on elections. But, even that likely depends on who you are. So far, digital political ads–especially in social media contexts–have actually increased political competition and created more access for insurgent candidates representing nuanced or minority views that may otherwise be boxed out of races.
In a social media study affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania, one researcher reported:
“The extraordinary [ad] spend highlights just how much cash it takes to run for public office in America and why it’s so difficult for political newcomers to gain momentum at the polls without connections to influential donors…The problem perpetuates through election cycles, which is why up to 90% of incumbents are reelected in what research calls “the incumbency advantage…Political newcomers can get a substantial boost in support by using social media channels, which cost next to nothing and are easily tapped by anyone with an internet connection. The finding is important because it indicates how social media can help level the playing field in politics, where money and access to formal communication channels pose huge barriers to new entrants.”
The ongoing pandemic has also shifted a lot of paid and volunteer traditional community organizing, voter education, and candidate campaigning to online spaces and–when digital ads are banned–to “relational organizing” models. These digital models are agile and show promise beyond the pandemic and digital political ad prohibitions.
The Center for Digital Democracy suggests, “The real-time capabilities of digital media could also facilitate more effective get-out-the-vote efforts, targeting and reaching individuals much more efficiently than in-person appeals and last-minute door-to-door canvassing.” Specifically, precise targeting in digital ads can reach voters in geographically underprivileged spaces or to engage marginalized voters that major parties don’t typically spend money to reach, bringing important voter voices back into the democratic process.
However the very capacity to “micro-target…a group at little cost” according to NBC, not only creates access for insurgent candidates, reaches otherwise marginalized voters, and brings lower budget advocacy campaigns into play–but it can also create room for sophisticated disinformation campaigns leading to voter suppression. This dynamic has been one of the primary points of contention since 2016.
Wired discussed one solution for future electoral seasons: “If companies couldn’t use our data to target ads, they would have no reason to gobble it up in the first place, and no opportunity to do mischief with it later…Ban the right of companies to use personal data for advertising targeting.” Of course, this directly contends with many current digital advertising profit models: “Google and Facebook, including their subsidiaries like Instagram and YouTube, make about 83 percent and 99 percent of their respective revenue from one thing: selling ads. It’s the same story with Twitter and other free sites and apps…[using] behavioral advertising.”
It’s not that all digital advertising would be banned, just that digital ads–especially political digital ads–would have to be incentivized in other ways beyond personalized data mining, such as Google’s search-term-based advertising.
Mega media mergers and the rise of digital political advertising on connected TV
Even if companies or legislation bans the use of personalized digital data and political digital ads altogether, mega mergers within the media industry project other ways political marketing in digital spaces may still evolve.
The Center for Digital Democracy outlines a role media and advertising companies are already playing–and arguably must continue to ethically assess–as the landscape evolves in future elections:
“Recent mergers and partnerships in the media and data industries are creating new synergies that will extend the reach and enhance the capabilities of contemporary political campaigns. This consolidation has helped fuel the unfettered growth of a powerful digital marketing ecosystem, along with an expanding spectrum of software systems, specialty firms, and techniques that are now available to political campaigns…On the other hand, there is a very real danger that many of these digital techniques could undermine the democratic process.”
In what digital software company Centro calls, “the most promising development in digital for political marketers,” CTV is one such landscape shift bringing the agility and cost efficiency of internet political advertising to television and successfully reaching younger audiences while doing it.
As many as “40% of persuadable voters are not cable/satellite subscribers and 70% of persuadable voters have an ad-supported streaming TV service,” according to Forbes. Political consultant Campaigns and Elections forecasted the long term potential: “Google/YouTube TV has restricted first and third-party data for targeting purposes. Advertisers are limited to Google’s demographic data. Twitter has banned political advertising, as have Spotify and Adobe. These changes could make CTV targeting capabilities particularly impactful. On CTV, advertisers can use third-party data, such as registered voter data, to inform their targeting and significantly increase return on ad spend.”
The relationship between published branded content that has existed solely online and content solely on television may be changing and offering digital political advertisers unexplored terrain in future elections, depending on how legislation and company policies also evolve.
Staying ahead of the curve – ethics and profits in future elections
2020 is certain to change future elections, and the companies that can evolve with the trends will continue to thrive. It remains likely that the industry will see more restrictions on social media spending–perhaps content and targeting limits from the FCC, another government body, or companies themselves. The shift from traditional to connected TV and streaming present untapped potential and unknown obstacles; numerous ethical concerns and anxiety about fake news will continue to challenge political, digital, and media ecosystems at every level.
Companies that make regular ethical assessments, update internal policies, and remain abreast of major trends in media mergers, communications and media law, and technological developments will be best positioned to serve their customers and communities with ethical and competitive quality during future election seasons. The one thing least likely to change? The sheer volume of digital political ad spend will continue to shape democracies and companies for years to come.