Digital political ads offer a direct line into voters' hearts and pockets

This may be the last presidential race where television is still king

Ad spend continues to flow toward digital media, and the 2016 presidential race is no exception. In the wake of the Iowa caucuses, it is apparent that much of the battle, particularly for the hearts and minds of millennials and minorities, took place online — a scenario likely to become the model for the other contests over the next 10 months.

The surge in political digital advertising, which an oft-cited Borrell Associates report predicted will hit $1.1 billion this cycle, seems counterintuitive. Turnout is much higher among older voters who use digital and mobile devices far less than younger generations. The traditional view is that television ads are the way to reach the most people who will actually turn up at the polls. "In certain states, in certain places, TV is still going to be more prevalent than digital this election," said Michael Balabanov, advertising account director for politics and public relations at AOL. But things are changing. "Even older people are getting more into the smartphone game," he said. And voter turnout among young people is up since 2008.

So digital advertising is increasingly becoming an important way to target and sway voters, and the campaigns have noticed.

"I don’t think it’s just by happenstance that Bernie Sanders is advertising on Snapchat. That’s a strategic move to talk to that younger audience. It’s not by happenstance that Jeb Bush announced his candidacy on social media," said Andrea Duggan, vice president of media sales at Gamut, a digital media services company. The Sanders campaign ran a nine-day campaign featuring geo-targeted image overlays that supporters could add to their photos or videos.

While less of an issue in lily-white Iowa and New Hampshire, the fact that a greater percentage of minority voters depend on mobile devices for their news and Internet access makes digital ads an ideal way to enfranchise people traditionally left out of the political process. "In general, they’re not watching Nightly News at 6:00 with Lester Holt," Duggan said.

"Since 2004, digital has always been thought of as a place to raise money to buy television, and I think it’s moving in a direction where digital is going to be the place where votes will be found," Balabanov said. "You want to get to a place where you know the message you’re serving to a voter is going to be the message that’s going to resonate with that voter in the platform that resonates with that voter."

Digital ads can help campaigns target individual voters rather than specific websites, and programmatic buys offer a level of fine-tuning that can be a huge boon to campaigns that are dealing with potentially sensitive topics or need to instantly respond to changes in the polls or breaking news. "If you need to pause an ad on Saturday night, you’re able to pause an ad on Saturday night," Balabanov said. "If you need to get a new ad launched with a new campaign targeting a different set of voters because the strategy changed, on Monday at 7:00 a.m., you’re able to do that."

Since Kennedy debated Nixon in 1960, politicos have considered television the most emotive medium. The smartphone is replacing it. "Here’s this device, and it’s six inches from your face, and it’s used as a television but on a more personal and more targeted level," said Matt Ross, director of sales for AOL Advertising. "This digital extension of you in your pocket knows everything about you. It knows all of your behaviors and habits already built into it."

Voters feel a connection to their phones, Ross said, so ads need to play those emotions, sometimes at the expense of policy proposals. Donald Trump’s second television ad recreated the experience of being at one of his campaign rallies. Sanders’ most popular ad featured no copy, just a Simon and Garfunkel track with inspiring images from the campaign trail.

But with the new influx of cash being thrown at digital ads this year, it’s likely that much of it is being wasted. Campaigns know they need to reach out to more voters, but the formula hasn’t been perfected. The Jeb Bush-affiliated super-PAC Right to Rise has spent more than $61 million so far, to no avail.

"I think that’s the first time you’ve seen that," Ross said. "They say in the industry, ‘You drop 1,000 GRPs into a race, and you will win.’ They’re starting to realize that is not the way things are working." Still, in a race where conventional wisdom has been turned on its head, this new paradigm may still surprise everyone. "At the end of this cycle, we’ll see who has done it well," he added. "The person who’s done it best may not be the winner."

Follow I-Hsien on Twitter @ihsiensherwood.

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