One of the most-hyped data innovations of the 2016 election has a prominent critic. Democratic digital ad veteran Andrew Bleeker was skeptical of a new form of voter targeting adopted by the likes of Republican Ted Cruz and former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton's Super PAC.
The president of Democratic advertising firm Bully Pulpit Interactive, who oversaw digital ads for both President Barack Obama's 2008 and 2012 campaigns, Mr. Bleeker spoke during the "Campaign 2016: What's Working, and Why" conference hosted by Ad Age and Time Inc. in Washington, D.C. yesterday.
"Sometimes we focus too much on some of the really small tactical things," he said, suggesting that too often political advertisers get so caught up with the minute capabilities of targeting that they forget about the big picture and the broader message strategy.
His comments were prompted by a description of psychographic targeting by Christian Curto, senior account executive and political director at GOP digital consultancy Campaign Solutions. The agency has employed the unique form of voter segmentation and ad targeting most recently for video ads from the Bolton PAC that support Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Joe Heck, a physician and congressman from Nevada, Republicans running for Senate seats in highly watched races.
Based on analytics work by UK firm Cambridge Analytica, political advertisers including the Cruz campaign have used psychographic segmentation to produce nuanced iterations of ads with words or images tweaked to resonate with people in voter segments displaying specific personality traits such as openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. For the Bolton PAC, the most recent application of Cambridge's data analytics work is for three different video ads for each of the two Senate candidates, each featuring slight variations. Campaign Solutions is managing that effort.
For instance, one ad for Mr. Heck states, "He stands for what's best in America and that's exactly the kind of leadership we can trust to create jobs and restore American greatness for future generations." Another takes a more forceful tack: "Joe will rip through Washington red tape to deliver results that you can see. Joe Heck -- he won't back down because America's prosperity is something we're all fighting for."
The Bolton PAC tested the approach during the 2014 midterms, running 15 different digital and TV spots each in North Carolina and Arkansas and 17 in New Hampshire, all intended to push Mr. Bolton's national security agenda.
Although both Obama presidential campaigns were known for their sharp use of data for voter segmentation and targeting, during the panel discussion about digital best practices, Mr. Bleeker suggested that producing different ad variations for every voter segment might miss the forest for the trees.
"People don't vote because we targeted them with the right psychographic message," he said during the panel discussion. "For most campaigns we'd better start doing one good ad rather than 50 different variations."
Mr. Curto did not respond to Mr. Bleeker's comments during the panel and declined to discuss the subject on the record afterwards.