What Internet Election? Why Online Advertising Didn't Matter In 2010

Online's a Fine Place to Start, but TV Is the King of Results

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Remember 2008? The battle for the presidency was waged via Facebook and the campaigns battled over Google search terms. This was supposed to be the future of political advertising.

Trouble is, that future hasn't come to pass.

Karl Rove isn't going around pitching for money saying, "We have to buy more banner ads." And George Soros wasn't screaming, "Here's another million, buy more search terms!"

In 2010, TV is back and it's bigger than ever.

It's the Economy, Stupid
The economy pushed ad expenditures down across the board in 2010. Except political ad expenditures. The last election cycle set a political ad-spending record of $2.8 billion and 2010 is expected to shatter that mark with more than $4 billion in ad expenditures.

Two-thirds of that money went to TV.

To be fair, other media enjoyed higher political expenditures -- including online. In fact, online spending doubled to just less than $45 million. Or less than the cost to run one major U.S. Senate race.

It isn't even a case of the usual suspects spending money in the usual places. Brand new groups like American Crossroads and the American Action Network injected millions of brand new dollars into political races. They didn't go online, either.

The 2010 Elections Began Online
Early in the cycle campaigns ramped up significant online operations. At one point, Meg Whitman's California gubernatorial campaign had over 20 people dedicated to online and social media. Her website is one of the most robust in political history.

Video skirmishes were being fought on YouTube. Even offensive efforts were being waged solely online -- for example, the anti-Barbara Boxer "Hot Air" movie.

Our firm made more web videos this summer than we did in the last two election cycles.

Then it stopped cold. Why? We weren't making the videos for the voters, we were making them for the press. Once the campaigns started in earnest, and the press took interest, we could go back to a much less expensive media called the press release.

Online Is the New Direct Mail
In surveys among voters, more than 75% of respondents say they get much of their information regarding elections from TV. (They're too proud to say they get their information from TV commercials, but we know they're not sitting around all day watching C-SPAN and reading the Congressional Record.)

About 15% say radio and a bit less than 10% cite direct mail, newspapers and the Internet. (Respondents are allowed to pick more than one medium, hence the total is over 100%.)

Of all those media, the Internet is the least likely to move numbers. Even less than direct mail.

Too much clutter.

The beauty of TV and radio advertising is that when your spot is running, you own the channel. You have someone's undivided intention. They have to take a physical action to avoid your message.

An internet banner ad competes side by side with the content a viewer really wants. And it usually loses.

Search word buys are even harder to quantify.

In the next few cycles I think the internet will be taking more and more from direct mail budgets than TV budgets. Both internet and direct mail are very targetable and very specific with the edge going to internet because you can traffic in new creative in hours instead of days.

It Isn't All Sunshine and Puppies
TV viewership is down. If you haul in 2 million viewers you have a hit on your hands. And local TV news (the bastion of political advertising) is dying faster than Mel Gibson's career.

Where 800 GRPs per week used to do the job, 1,200 GRPs are required now. And political media buyers have to work much harder to find those voters.

More GRPs and more money shifted from news to prime time mean we're spending more money to ask for your vote.

The Internet Isn't Dead
Far from it. The internet is a vital tool for political campaigns. There is no easier way for the truly interested voter to learn about a candidate. No better way for someone to get involved in a campaign. No simpler and more secure way to raise money. And with the lethal combination of e-mail and mobile texting, the best way to mobilize a force for action.

We haven't even mentioned blogs. During this cycle more and more blogs have crossed the line from "nut in his mother's basement" to "legitimate news sources." In fact, many campaigns have used quotes from blogs in their TV spots. Prior to 2010, print journalism was the only reputable source for these quotes.

Granted, the Internet is an amazing thing. But if you want to move numbers in an election, you gotta talk to the king. Television. Long live the king.

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Vinny Minchillo is chief creative officer of Scott Howell & Company, Dallas.

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