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The Fight for Ad Buys in an Election Year

It seems like we just finished with a historic, crazy midterm election in 2018, and we’re about to find ourselves knee-deep in another election season this year. Political campaigns and election cycles seem to get bigger and bigger, and if you’re working in the media industry, you’ve certainly noticed their influence. According to GroupM, political ad spending has been growing exponentially. It rose by $1.1 billion between 2008 and 2012 and by $2 billion between 2012 and 2016. In 2020, spending is projected to hit nearly $10 billion, up $3.6 billion from the last presidential election cycle in 2016. This includes video, audio, print, digital and out-of-home ad buys, and the impact can be felt in markets across the country. But as you’ll see, television will account for the lion’s share.

So, what do we have in store for us in the 2020 election season? Well, strap in.

Digital Duels

Digital ad spending in political elections first became a major factor in the 2008 election with the Obama campaign’s powerful digital strategy. Now, a dozen years later, GroupM projects that digital ad spending will reach nearly $3 billion in 2020, accounting for 2.2% of all digital ad spending. What does this mean for digital ad buys as a whole?

Be prepared for increased demand and increased cost. “The 2020 Presidential election is already affecting the impact of unique reach and driving up costs in the digital advertising relm,” says James Pruitt, a digital media specialist at The Ward Group. “Increased demand from presidential candidates is driving up CPMs [cost per thousand impressions] and CPCs [cost per click] while share of voice decreases.”

2020 will be the first full cycle in which Facebook and Google disclose all political expenditures made on their platforms since they started tracking this spending in 2018, and we’re already beginning to see some huge political advertising numbers coming in. “The Trump 2020 campaign is estimated to be spending upwards of $700k/month on Facebook alone,” says Pruitt, “and according to the Google Transparency Report, political advertising in the US on Google-owned properties - Google, YouTube or partner properties - has surpassed $120 million since May 2018.” We can expect this kind of spending to increase moving further into 2020, especially as campaigns take advantage of the quick response time of digital ads in the wake of big news events.

The public is sure to scrutinize all of this digital ad spending by politicians (and the rest of us by association). Pruitt explains, “Data and privacy are hot topics currently with the introduction of GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] and CCPA [California Consumer Privacy Act]. In the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal from 2016, we may see more consumer pushback in those two areas as the year progresses.” With your advertising activities under a microscope, you’ll want to make sure everything you do is above-board.

One thing is for sure, though, the internet could be a dangerous place for your brand if you aren’t careful in 2020. “Tensions will be high on all social media platforms and internet properties,” Pruit warns. Regardless of where you retreat to online, there will be nowhere you entirely avoid the politically-charged atmosphere and sensitivity of discussions surrounding the election.

“I recommend clients steer clear of any creative messaging that might provoke negative emotion as tensions run high this political season,” Pruitt advises. Better safe than sorry.

Political Ad Stalwarts

While we are sure to see candidates all over the internet and our social media feeds in the next year, the majority of budgets are still going to traditional ad buys, namely TV. According to Politico, we should prepare ourselves for more than 8 million broadcast airings of political ads in 2020. You may think that as digital spending increases, campaigns would move away from TV, radio or even print ads, but that’s not the case. Rather than switching advertising channels, campaigns are just increasing their budgets.

In the 2018 midterms, Kantar Group reports that $5.25 billion was spent on advertising, with most of that filling the pockets of sellers of TV ad buys. This spending surpassed what analysts predicted for the election cycle, making it the richest midterm election in US history. Most of this money went to local markets, too.

Local broadcast and local cable exceeded the 2016 presidential election year totals. If the current political climate can lead to that kind of advertising outcome in a midterm, local media buying markets have a very competitive couple of months ahead.

The Political Onslaught

The huge volume of political advertising could potentially crowd out other local advertisers, so prepare for that possibility in advance. Buy early while the getting’s good and your investment can be ensured, especially for television spots.

“Preparing for media planning and buying during an election year is not a fun experience, but we try to communicate the importance of placing media ad buys as early as possible to advertisers,” says Robin Cox, media supervisor at The Ward Group. “We try to be prepared for pre-emptions and have weeks available for “makegoods” outside the political window when possible.”

Political advertising tends to target news broadcasts the most, so as you’re working out your media plan for the coming months, try to work around these times. “Avoid news dayparts if possible or plan to adjust the weight on those dayparts because political advertising has always heavily impacted those areas,” Cox recommends.

Still, with the risk of being crowded out of prime time spots, it’s always a smart move to add some diversity to your media plans. Cox shares, “Consider moving some of the plan frequency or weight to alternative media such as Advanced TV, Radio, Streaming Audio, Digital, etc.”

Local Market Runoffs

How bad is the buying frenzy in local markets going to be for you? Well, it depends. While candidates may not be able to saturate every market to their heart’s desire, PACs are able to focus a large portion of their budgets on key markets, promoting their chosen candidate, party, ballot initiative or specific legislation.

As reported by BIA Advisory Services, candidates and their PACs will spend more than $6.55 billion on local ads in 2020. Their spending will break down like this: $3.08 billion (47%) used for over-the-air television advertising; $1.37 billion (21%) for online/digital media; $919 million (14%) for MVPD/cable/satellite; and $312 million (4.8%) for radio. How much of this money ends up in your local market has a lot to do with where you are in the country.

The amount of political advertising will vary from market to market, as BIA’s forecast indicates, due to the size of the market as well as the local elections taking place. Are you a swing state? Does your state or district have a highly-contested congressional seat? Do you live in a state with an early democratic primary? Even if you live in a city with a nail-biting 2020 mayoral race coming up, you’re likely to see the price of ad buys increase as the competition for them increases.

And Now, the Stump Speech

Much like political campaigns, media advertising campaigns take a lot of planning and forethought to execute well. The Ward Group’s media planners and buyers have been navigating these arenas since Reagan was president, and as media stewards, we vow to assist your brand at every step of the campaign trail. As local markets ride the waves of change, rest assured your ad buys and budgets are well-managed. Give us a call today to start preparing your media plans for 2020 and beyond.

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