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Political ads face a brave new (and on-demand) world

Written By | Mar 21, 2014

WASHINGTON, March 21, 2014 — As Americans’ television viewing habits change, commercials will have to change too – especially political ads.

Public Opinion Strategies and Global Strategy group released a joint study this week which predicts online and on-demand entertainment will make traditional political television ads less relevant. The survey shows that just 48 percent of viewers take in their video primarily through live, as-it-happens TV. And 30 percent of respondents said they hadn’t watched any live television in a week.

The study follows an announced deal between Dish Network and Walt Disney Company that will allow Dish to distribute Disney content through a non-traditional, and presumably low- or no-commercial, online subscription service.

It’s as if nobody likes commercials. Which, of course, they don’t.

The long-term trend is clear: Streaming video, on-demand options, and DVR recordings have empowered viewers to skip or reduce commercials. Furthering the challenge for political advertisers is the multitude of content channels available: niche programs make viewing audiences smaller and more difficult to reach with broad-based messaging.

That’s no death knell for political ads though. Video remains the best way for a candidate or issue group to tell a story and win support, and paid media is still the most effective way to spread messages to affect public opinion. It does mean campaigns need to keep some factors in mind when producing the next generation of campaign ads.

Be Compelling. Super Bowl advertisers try to tell us stories and make us laugh enough that we remember their commercials, talk about them the next day, and share them with our Facebook friends. A good ad can multiply their exposure well beyond the 30-second time frame they spent millions for. Campaigns and causes will have to do the same. Though political campaigns already value ads that tug at heartstrings or evoke a chuckle, making an impression becomes especially critical when the viewer sees fewer ads.

Target the right audience with the right message. Perhaps the most profound change as TV has evolved has been splintered audiences. The days of three networks and a few independent stations that ran syndicated programs have yielded to hundreds of cable stations and almost as many venues to watch streaming video. The fractured audience makes reaching massive numbers of people at once more difficult – but it also allows for highly specific messaging. President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign discovered they could reach undecided and low-information voters by advertising on TV Land and late-night talk shows. The next step will be even more precisely targeted: Dish and DirecTV are already offering household-specific ad buys. Campaigns with robust and smart big data operations will be able to reach very particular sets of voters, and ad creative will have to reflect that type of engagement.

Scale the creative. Video content consumers have four screens to choose from: television, tablet, smartphone, and computer. Often, they pick two or more to use at a time. This offers campaigns a chance to reach a voter with multiple, but complementary, video formats. Depending on the audience, a message may have to fit into a six-second Vine video, a 15-second Instagram video, a 30-second ad on a traditional television show, or all-of-the-above (and more). Consistent and compelling messages across multiple platforms will be important to have the breadth of reach essential for telling the campaign’s story effectively.

A key element in all of these factors is the need for a campaign’s advertising strategy to work in harmony with its data strategy. As mass-broadcast messaging yields to more specifically targeted ads, the opportunity to say just the right thing to just the right person is simply too good to pass up.

It is true that older audiences, who are more likely to vote, are also the ones most likely to follow more traditional television viewing habits – so the cord-cutting revolution isn’t likely to render old-school TV ads obsolete in time for the 2014 elections. But today’s younger audiences are tomorrow’s older audiences. The on-demand media consumption habits they learn to enjoy now will not go away.

Video remains the best way to tell a story. How that video looks continues to evolve.

Jim Eltringham

Jim Eltringham is a grassroots political consultant and Vice President of Advantage, a voter contact and mobilization firm. He has designed and implemented campaigns merging multiple online and offline tactics for a range of political and advocacy organizations. Eltringham lives in Centreville, Virginia with his wife and their two daughters.