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Data-Driven Targeting Creates Huge 2016 Political Ad Shift: Broadcast TV Down 20%, Cable and Digital Way Up

By Published on .

An ad supporting the 2016 Trump campaign
An ad supporting the 2016 Trump campaign
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The 2016 election outcome was unpredictable not only because of Donald Trump's presidential victory, but in terms where the money went. According to a new report from media tracker Borrell Associates, the final tally of political campaign ad spending in the 2016 election cycle came in lower than anticipated -- at $9.8 billion. And, while broadcast TV retained its dominance, the mass media mainstay of political advertising took a big blow from more targetable and data-driven ad options such as cable TV and digital.

According to Borrell, broadcast TV spending fell nearly 20% this cycle compared with 2012, from $5.45 billion to $4.4 billion in 2016. Radio was also way down -- by 23% to $621 million. As other traditional media spending such as magazine and newspaper ads continued their gradual declines, media that often involves more refined targeting and data-driven buying decisions rose, and in a big way.

Digital advertising, which includes video ads, mobile, email, social and search, broke the billion dollar mark, reaching $1.4 billion, and growing a staggering 789% from $159 million in 2012. However, at 14% of total political ad spending in 2016, the medium has yet to reach 20% market share, long considered a goal for digital ad proponents serving the political industry. Cable television, which saw a steep increase of 52% to $1.35 billion in 2016, now accounts for around the same size slice of the pie as digital. Direct mail -- the political ad world's legacy data-driven medium -- also rose, around 6% to $301 million.

The political ad numbers reflect the broader trend being played out across the advertising landscape -- use of data to target audience segments and make smarter media buys in new (digital) and older media (direct mail and cable) is taking over.

Targeting audiences using programmatic ad buying platforms was an important driver of political ad spending during the 2016 cycle, said Kip Cassino, exec VP of Borrell Associates and the author of the report, "The Final Analysis: What Happened to Political Advertising in 2016 (and Forever)."

"It was absolutely the equalizer in getting your digital message to whoever you want to vote for you," he said. To determine ad expenditures, the research firm monitors receipts showing ad spending with local media firms.

Borrell pegged local, state, and nationwide political ad spend around the 2012 election at $9.4 billion. Media prognosticators expected 2016 ad spending to rocket past that mark by a billion dollars, though it reached far less, $9.8 billion. It's important to remember that even before early 2015, political pundits expected the inevitable: Jeb Bush would take the Republican presidential nomination, and Hillary Clinton would lead the Democratic ticket. That spelled unprecedented ad spending -- potentially following the classic broadcast TV-heavy playbook -- by both. Despite a packed Republican primary race, the presence of an earned media-centric Trump campaign, one that didn't even hit the paid TV airwaves until January 2016, threw media observers for a loop.

"We had all looked forward to a pretty cookie cutter campaign," said Mr. Cassino.

That upset on the Republican side also resulted in a lack of money flowing from expected big presidential spenders from the outside, notably the conservative Koch brothers, who sat out the presidential race.

"The 2016 presidential campaign proved, for the first time, that a candidate doesn't have to match or outspend an opponent in TV commercials -- or even in overall funds raised -- to win an election," stated the report, which concluded, "That revelation has changed the trajectory."

Still, it remains to be seen whether the Trump effect -- largely created through built-in name recognition and a rare ability to cultivate a cult of personality -- can be replicated in a way that affects media buying in quite the same capacity again.