Political ad buyers, don’t fear the Web

The world all around us is changing. But political advertising seems oblivious to the revolution. That’s a conclusion one might reach after reading the projections for 2012 ad spending by political campaigns published in Monday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal. Borrell Associates, researchers focused on local markets and online advertising, has developed estimates for the amount of advertising that will be earmarked for nine different channels of communication.

Overall, Borrell projects that almost $10 billion will be spent on politics this time, up sharply over the nearly $7 billion spent in 2008. Despite that significant upward adjustment, the researchers’ estimates are that allocations among various media will remain largely unchanged. The lion’s share, 57 percent, will still go to broadcast TV, but that is projected to be down about 5 percentage points from 2008. Cable picks up most of the dollars lost by broadcast but still will get less than 10 percent of political ad spending. Everything else gets crumbs. Online advertising is expected to attract only $159 million, just 1.5 percent of the total.

Given that Borrell is a purported expert in online advertising research, and therefore probably somewhat of an advocate for the medium, the fact that it sees so little spending headed to online sources confers some credibility on the report’s conclusions. This isn’t some silicone-laced spin doctoring to promote online’s fortunes.

As a pollster who often asks media-usage questions, these numbers bother me. Granted, my questions focus on where voters get their news and information, as opposed to their entertainment, but the imbalance with respect to broadcast TV makes no sense these days. When I ask voters, only about one-fifth get most of their news and information from broadcast TV. The rest split almost evenly among daily newspapers, weekly newspapers, cable, radio and the Internet.

Over several time series where we have tracked the numbers, online sources have risen from nothing to 15 percent or more as the top medium for news and information. So why is online still stuck at less than 2 percent of spending for political ads? For that matter, why is cable garnering only 9.5 percent?

There are many rationales for the slow rate of change in political advertising allocations, too many to discuss here, but a few rise to the top. First, those who control political advertising budgets use media they are familiar with, and broadcast TV is their bailiwick. Even if they know that TV isn’t as effective as it once was, and they do (believe me), at least they know that. About some of these other media, they know little. So they stay away. And it always sounds sophisticated to say, “Cable and online have failed to prove their audience size and effectiveness,” implying that it’s somewhat empirically unsound or even recklessly anti-intellectual to buy those media. But isn’t there enough data to support more spending on cable, online and even newspapers than they are getting now?

A related matter is that most political advertisers producers don’t know how to use online advertising. This reminds me of the dust-up between automaker GM and Facebook. GM seemed aghast that research showed that half of all Facebook users never click on sponsored links. This surprised them? The Buick people?

Evidently they have never studied how people watch TV, tuning out broadcast ads in myriad ways. The more sophisticated Ford marketers, fans of Facebook, sniffed, “It’s all about the execution; our Facebook ads are effective when strategically combined with engaging content and innovation.” So political campaigns need to think about execution before limiting online to such paltry buys in 2012.

I would guess that there are fewer than two dozen gatekeepers of political campaign treasuries who could change all this. Facebook and Comcast should take them to lunch.

David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.