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Tuesday
May012012

Why No One Is Watching Campaign Ads

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This could be the first election that is lost because someone didn't leverage digital advertising.

-- Michael Beach, Targeted Victory

There may be no bloodshed, but politics is still war – especially when it comes to political ads. It's a battle for opinion, a struggle to define both one's self and one’s opponents' visions, and a clash of promises and images. As a crucial part of the mix, candidates try to communicate directly to voters. This has become much more difficult in the last dozen years. Thanks to bloggers, trackers, pundits, talking heads, and all manner of gonzo opinionators, there are very few ways for a politician to speak to voters without filters.

Which is why it's no surprise that the TV spot, with its 30 seconds of uninterrupted attention, remains the workhorse of paid campaign tactics. In the 2010 mid-term election cycle, politicians spent $2 billion on these ads. With fists already flying in the 2012 campaign, and spots already running in early primary states, the prediction is that campaigns will spend $3 billion on television before next November. Television has worked well for 50 years. From Lyndon Johnson’s Daisy to Reagan’s Morning in America, both of which replaced candidates' faces and promises with stirring emotional imagery, to spots that define positions and attack opponents, the investment in television has worked.

Last fall, SAY Media published a study of how television consumption is changing. We found that about a third of the online adult audience was watching much less of their TV live, moving instead to time-shifted sources like DVR, DVD, and streaming. This week, we released a follow-up study we did with two political media consultancies that specifically looks at how media consumption is changing among likely voters. We conducted our research using the same tool that campaigns rely on: telephone polling. In a national poll we found that 31 percent of likely voters hadn’t watched live TV in the previous week. That number rose to 38 percent in the key battleground state of Ohio. Almost 40 percent of likely voters have a DVR in the home and 88 percent of that group uses the DVR to skip at least three quarters of the ads (60 percent say they skip all the ads).

The implication is clear: a large slice of the voting population is not watching an ad when it's broadcast – and quite likely, not at all. Campaign messages are often highly perishable, with spin changing daily. Even if the time shifters do eventually watch the ad, getting the message past its shelf life does not help the candidate nearly as much as watching when it’s fresh.

Since 2008, candidates have been experimenting with digital communication. That has had some awkward moments, such as Hillary Clinton’s low authenticity scores for over-scripted web content or a certain congressman's overconfidence in his understanding of how Twitter works. And it has led to some successes, such as my.barackobama.com, which efficiently converted passion for the candidate into actions measurable in campaign terms: donations, door knocks, phone calls. President Obama currently has more than 23 million Facebook followers, to whom he communicates directly and daily.

The Obama 2008 campaign has set the template for budget and success in digital, but chances are someone will set a new standard in the next 14 months. That standard will no doubt include new ways of harnessing passion through both social channels and digital advertising, because, increasingly, that is the only way to forge the direct connection with the voters that makes or breaks a campaign.

By Matt Rosenberg, VP of Solutions for SAY Media

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