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Gearing Up for 2020 Political Advertising

Gearing Up for 2020 Political Advertising

Way before any of us were ready for it, the 2020 presidential campaign season began. In fact, it seems there hasn’t been a break since 2016, and Democratic Party candidates began campaigning almost six months earlier than in previous presidential election cycles. More than a year before the 2020 elections, we’ve already had three televised Democratic debates. Elsewhere, senatorial campaigns are aggressively fundraising, and state-level political efforts are beginning to accrue media coverage and attention. Ready or not, we are in political campaign mode. 

Does your agency have a political niche, or see an opportunity in local or state elections? Arguably, state elections could have a greater impact on the nation’s policies and key issues than the national elections. Certainly U.S. House and Senate elections will be a factor in our political future. From local to national campaigns, ad agencies can assist in a number of areas in the 2019 mid-terms and 2020 national election.

Campaign Ad Spending Is Expected to Break Records

Campaign spending continues to rise, no matter how we may moan about politics having become a rich person’s game. Kantar reported campaign spending increased by 21 percent between 2017 and 2018, and predicted the 2020 cycle to rise by 14 percent. A predicted $6.55 billion will be spent on local election campaigns in 2020. An estimated $1.37 Billion will be spent in online/digital channels, but nearly 47% of projected spending will go to over-the-air (OTA) television ads. Radio and direct mail are receiving decreasing election spending as a portion of overall election budgets, but can achieve better reach in local and state campaigns.

Ad agencies may be interested in getting a slice of the election spending pie.

Areas Where Campaigns Need Help

Audience Research and Targeting

Understanding which channels are best at getting messages to specific audiences is increasingly vital to making the most of campaign dollars. Do local audience research to help campaigns learn when using channels other than TV and online may deliver better results. Check out Vici Media Inc.'s post about retargeting and mobile technologies, How Do You Capture Part of the Billions Spent on Local Political Campaigns?

Branding 

The 2018 mid-terms highlighted some interesting changes in how candidates brand themselves and express their political styles. Multiple young candidates tossed out the traditional red and blue campaign colors of old, favoring bright primary colors; campaign typography received modern upgrades; and merged grassroots art with official campaign literature and signage. (A rundown on some of the Democratic candidates’ brand efforts.)

Digital/Online

Unlike traditional broadcast media, online political advertising is not covered by “equal time” regulations… nor is it as carefully reviewed for “truthiness,” as we’ve seen in recent election campaigns. In an environment where anyone can post videos and memes that go viral because agenda-driven groups aggressively promote them, negative campaign messages have the power to greatly disrupt voters’ intentions just as they are making decisions about which candidates to support. That said, candidates for state and federal offices typically run banner ad campaigns to drive people to dedicated websites sharing their positions on issues and often use streaming video to speak directly to supporters.

Remember website accessibility! Vox.com reported recently that none of the 2020 presidential candidates have websites accessible to disabled voters. Other problems include alternate language sites with shoddy translation.

Other issues include search engine optimization, and monitoring search results for negative and misleading content pushing to the top of candidate search results.

Social Media

Fifteen years after presidential candidate Howard Dean employed early social media tool Meetup and youthful internet-savvy campaign aides to build an exciting grassroots campaign, social media has become a norm for most political candidates, from presidential aspirants to local school board first-timers. Facebook is essential; Twitter has become a useful amplifier; Instagram is good for sharing more personal glimpses of candidates on the campaign trail. Candidates are testing other social media tools, and every campaign has social media communications specialists. But the 2016 campaign also highlighted the dark side of social media as a campaign influencer. 

Facebook and Twitter admitted they got played by malicious foreign parties who used third-party apps to analyze Facebook user behaviors and exploit those to spread misinformation and negative political messages. Both platforms say they are trying to “fix” what went wrong, but neither is truly willing to alter algorithms designed to boost traffic and time-spent because, ADS.

Twitter just announced new standards for political tweets, and Facebook has imposed new rules for political advertising

After years of criticism for not evenly applying its own standards for decency and civil discourse to elected representatives and government officials, Twitter announced it will now label tweets that violate its policies. Twitter says there will be no appeals once a tweet has been labeled as policy-violating. (A certain member of the Federal government has already complained that Twitter “make[s] it very much harder for me to get out the message.”) This allows Twitter to have it both ways—to appear to be applying standards evenly while still refusing to ban Tweets or punish repeat violators who fall under the “newsworthy” user category. In other words, they aren’t willing to bar bad behavior if it means reducing the traffic such behaviors guarantee. Meanwhile, bot and troll traffic is already escalating in tandem with early 2020 campaigning, and Twitter is doing little to stifle that issue, leaving it to individual users and a few app innovators to police and report bot accounts. 

Facebook also claims the “newsworthy” excuse for allowing elected officials and government employees to amplify racist, sexist, harassing, and other policy-violating posts. Its shift to emphasizing more private messaging and Groups could simply mask negative activity, not deter it. All of this means candidates and their teams will need to keep their eyes peeled for misinformation and negative memes.

Reaching the Streaming Generation

With vast numbers of younger voters disconnecting from traditional broadcast TV/cable service in favor of streaming platforms or connected TV, political advertisers are having to develop messaging for a new channel. EMarketer told Adweek that nearly 25 percent of U.S. households will have “cut the cord” on traditional TV by 2022, so it’s not just younger voters advertisers must start worrying about. Sixty-three percent of eMarketer’s survey sample (potential voters aged 18-29) also said they distrust political messaging on social platforms, pinpointing another shift to which political campaigns must adapt. 

Younger voters don’t want the packaged messages created by traditional campaigns; they prefer videos of candidates directly explaining their views on issues, and live-streamed events like town halls. This group accounts for 39 million potential votes. Agencies can help candidates find platforms where younger voters can hear candidates speak, and work to create videos that this motivated voting bloc can find and share.

Email campaigning: fundraising and events

For fundraising and event promotion, email is an essential. Many candidates will get email lists from their local party organizations, but won’t have a good idea of how to best use those lists. Your agency’s email list-segmenting and creative messaging skills can be a great resource for newbie candidates, or old-school types with less digital marketing savvy. 

Event Promotion and Management

Getting the word out about campaign stops and town halls is key to building a grassroots campaign. New people entering politics will probably need some guidance in how to promote and host events. While social media allows for strategic event promotion, your agency’s event experience may be very welcome to local candidates.

Public Relations and Media Promotion

Campaigning is not limited to ads, signage and campaign rallies. A strong PR and media effort helps to keep candidates or issues front and center for voters. Work with area candidates to help them develop essential PR practices, and maybe assist with local media relations. You might gain in “expert status” (and attract some campaign managers) by holding a campaign basics tutorial event for the many people who are testing the political waters as first-time candidates.

State and Local Issues

Many states include special ballot questions on election ballots, and your agency may want to help get the word out about such issues. Check your state and local agendas to see what ballot questions may be coming up for debate and vote, and determine if you want to dedicate some pro bono time to helping organizations pushing some of these ballot issues. Special ballots can also drive voter turnout.

Support your employees’ desire to participate

Many of your people may be motivated to participate in various voting and campaigning efforts. Some may want to be poll workers, or participate in local campaign efforts. Others may wish to work on voter registration drives or serve as Election Day transportation volunteers. Until Election Day is made a national holiday, employers can help by giving staff time to go to the polls, or encourage them to be active in local campaigns. 

As a business serving other businesses, strive to keep your agency brand above the political fray… and manage employees’ political passions so they don’t disrupt agency business or create client conflicts. Make sure you have clear policies restricting use of agency social media and platforms for political efforts.

Get Out the Vote and Redistricting Initiatives

If you really don’t want to get involved in specific candidate campaigns, there are other ways to make waves. “Get Out the Vote” initiatives have become great ways to help boost voter turnout among young and disaffected voters. Offering pro bono assistance to local voter registration or get-out-the-vote efforts is a less politicized way to involve your team in civic work. 

Another area that may interest your team is the Fair Districts movement, the anti-gerrymandering effort now active in many states. With the 2020 Census looming, and in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to involve the Federal Courts in redistricting cases, redistricting reform organizations are at work in several states to move the power to draw voting district maps away from political parties prone to creating districts for political advantage, and giving district mapping to non-partisan citizen committees. The Democratic Party has created a National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC) asking candidates to pledge to support fair district mapping in their states. De-politicizing voting districts could make more moderate candidates electable because districts would have a more balanced mix of party affiliations to which candidates would have to appeal.

Should You Align Agency and Candidate Values?

If your own politics and those of the agency team are aligned, you may be inclined to throw some weight behind specific candidates or issues. Before you do that, make sure you conduct a risk assessment:

  • Will actively campaigning for specific candidates have a negative effect on client relationships? 
  • Can you accept the risk of losing accounts or losing new business pitches over politics? 
  • What is the potential for losing employees whose political views may not fit perfectly with your own?
  • Are the agency’s stated values aligned with those of the candidate or issue you support?
  • Do you want your agency brand to become associated with a particular political POV or party?


Know going in what you and your agency are prepared to risk, and don’t become so focused on campaigning that you cease to “mind the store.” Continue to pursue new business, maintain strong account service and ensure your team’s unity is not disrupted by political animus.

See also our other articles on political advertising.

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