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Political Advertising Needs to Dig Deep into Data

March 25th, 2016   ||    by Todd Wasserman

Political advertising is a strange beast in the advertising world that is often ahead of the curve in some ways—for example, President Obama’s social media-heavy 2008 campaign—and almost quaintly old fashioned in others—as in its continued reliance on direct mailers and lawn signs.

The high stakes have forced political advertisers to be early innovators when it comes to data. In 2002, the GOP began keeping a national database called Voter Vault that some say allowed George W. Bush to win the White House by a mere 118,599 votes in Ohio in 2004, according to Ad Week. Voter Vault cross-tabulated voter and consumer data and discovered meaningful correlations, like Volvo owners were more likely to vote Democrat while Mercury owners leaned Republican, for example. Time magazine traces such affiliations even further.

Microtargeting During the 2016 Race

A decade or so later, microtargeting for political advertising is both more advanced and more important. More advanced because now there are reams of social media and behavioral data to consider and more important because for the first time, such data can be used to target TV ads.

Such data might include field work, emails, direct mail responses, polling, and TV viewership from set-top boxes. Some of this data is also real-time, which potentially allows advertisers to target new groups if it is seen as advantageous. For example, if a candidate insults Asian-Americans, then a rival can run a special ad aimed at such viewers.

So far, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz appears to be the most vocal adherent to data-based targeting. Cruz has said he’s working with a British firm that has 4,000 data points on every single American, including voting history, friends, and interests. The Cruz campaign has divided prospective voters into five different personality types and Cruz’s workers use a different script for each type.

Those efforts follow President Obama’s successful 2012 campaign, in which made use of lookalike audiences to expand targeting, reports PBS. That type of marketing outreach was credited with helping Obama win Virginia, a typically Republican state, in that election.

Adding TV to the Mix

In the past, microtargeting data has been applied to direct mail, phone outreach, and online advertising. That’s still the case, but the growth of programmatic TV means that this is likely the first year TV is added to that arsenal as well, suggests Ad Week. Not everyone will employ programmatic TV. As Advertising Age noted, “Convincing old-school political media minds to move more money away from traditional TV isn’t easy, but there’s growing appetite for targeting that employs voter file data and layered-in third-party information.”

It’s tempting to assume the candidate that employs the best technology will win the day, but, as Donald Trump’s success shows, things often don’t play out as expected. It’s safe to say though that employing the best data will help add a few percentage points, which, in a presidential election, can be crucial.

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