This campaign cycle, you won't be able to escape political ads

This campaign cycle, you won't be able to escape political ads
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Political communication has changed more in the past five years than it has since the advent of television. Technology allows campaign professionals to place messages before your eyes and in your ears in an ever-evolving way — in essence, by surrounding you.

Gone are the days when campaigns could place an ad on television and call it a day. We live with multiple screens — cell phones, desktop computers, laptop computers and tablets. Voters listen to music through streaming services and podcasts, as well as traditional radio. Where and what information we receive throughout the day is a blur, often dictated by the time of day. We awake and look at our phones. We stream music while working out, or listen to podcasts while driving. We spend hours before a screen at work and, back at home, turn on the TV or grab the laptop.  

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Given the multitude of places we get messages, it is more difficult than ever to reach voters. Winning campaigns must embrace and employ technological advances.

A bit of background to hopefully credential my views. I am one of a few second-generation national political consultants. I have sweat election days all of my life at the knee of a father who helped pioneer the industry of political media consultants. My high school and college summer job was driving light trucks and carrying gear for campaigns. The first TV targeting I recall was Dad’s firm using different ads for former U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas) in media markets throughout Texas in 1988. Prior to that, it was unheard of to not just run a single ad statewide regardless of the state.

Some of the most advanced television targeting nationally comes to satellite subscribers, where you can target individual households — matched to a custom voter file — to deliver the message likely to be most appealing to the viewer. It is called “addressable targeting” and can be considered direct mail for your screens. In some markets, such as New York City, cable providers offer this service. Other national cable providers have been talking about adding the feature for years but are just now beginning to roll it out.

Yes, you read that correctly — the satellite TV box in your home tracks everything you watch and makes that information available to advertisers. Advertisers don’t know it is you watching, specifically, since privacy rules only allow for meta-data. But when you’re targeted on “addressable” services it doesn’t matter if you’re watching the playoffs on ESPN or reruns of “Friends” — targeted voters will receive ads when their televisions are on.

Vizio televisions track your viewing habits and sell the information to data brokers to help tailor ads much like with digital placement. This allows an advertiser to counter, or further support, information your viewing history indicates you were exposed to. For example, someone who watched Fox News could be sent a spot the following night to counter the premise of Fox News, or CNN or the like.

Membership lists also are being matched for addressable television and digital targeting. A major labor union matched its members to satellite dish subscriptions and the general president of the union filmed a video encouraging his members to vote. The union members were surprised to see their leader speaking directly to his membership while discussing the union. It’s likely these viewers believed their neighbors were watching the same piece.   

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But TV alone won’t reach voters. Campaigns must have a multi-layered communications strategy to be successful. Viewers are cutting the cord to cable and satellite at an increasing pace and streaming shows.

So, cutting-edge campaigns employ voter file-matched and IP-targeted digital advertising delivered directly to specific voters or households across all their devices. This type of targeting also is available on programmatic audio, or streaming media services. For example, Pandora allows a voter file match as well as a tight geographic target for efficiency. Location-specific targeting, often known as geofencing, can allow campaigns to target specific locations such as a candidate rally or debate hall.

The key is placing a cookie into the phone or computer of someone in that specific location. Their device then becomes a target for ads regardless of where one goes. This technique has proven helpful when pushing lawmakers to support or oppose legislation. By directing video and ads directly to phones and devices, it is more likely an organization’s message will be seen by decision-makers.  

And, with all things digital, advances in artificial intelligence allow campaigns to automatically optimize their content to get a broader reach — sometimes running 100 or 200 variations on specific content to optimize for viewability and clicks.

As we witnessed in the last presidential campaign, not all of this technology is being used for the common good. So campaigns also must battle fake news designed to harm candidates with lies. Some innovative services allow campaigns to respond to fake news directly — but only to the voters who have been exposed to the false narratives. The tool hasn’t been perfected but it’s an important advance.

The goal of campaigns is to reach the voters where they are; it doesn’t matter if they’re jogging, driving, scrolling on their phone while waiting in a line, or watching TV at home. Campaigns must master a multi-layered approach to communication or they will lose.

The good news for campaigns is that utilizing cutting-edge technology is far less expensive than traditional TV advertising. The good news for veteran campaign consultants is that employing these placement techniques is complicated and requires creating far more case studies than a newbie or a politician can muster or master. The good news (and bad news) for voters is, you are going to see and hear a politician’s message as if surrounded by it — because you are.

Dane Strother, a partner in Strother Nuckels Strategies, is a veteran Democratic strategist and communications consultant.