Campaigns Waste $200 Million on Ads in Wrong Places

That Virginia campaign ad on TV in Washington? Close enough.

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A man holds a television remote control unit for a Virgin Media set top box in this arranged photograph at the company's store on Oxford Street in London, U.K., on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. Billionaire John Malone's Liberty Global Inc. agreed to acquire Virgin Media, Britain's second-largest pay-TV provider, in a $16 billion cash-and-stock transaction announced in the U.S. yesterday.

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Watching the World Series on television in Washington this week, viewers may have come across political ads for Senator Mark Warner or House candidate Barbara Comstock. That late-October would bring pols to the air in primetime is about the least surprising thing in the world. But Warner is running for re-election in Virginia. Comstock is running for a House seat in a northern part of the state. So why are their ads hitting Washington television? 

Turns out it is not a rarity at all—and it underscores a persistent problem for campaigns, even in an era of digital sophistication that is apparently overloading campaigns with too much good data (good read on that from Ashley Parker and Nick Corasaniti here). In fact, $200 million has been spent by congressional campaigns this cycle on broadcast TV ads that ran outside their districts, according to new research from Republican technology company Targeted Victory.

The issue is particularly pronounced in the week leading up to Election Day, when campaigns spend heavily (and inefficiently) in an effort to hit low-information voters, according to Elizabeth Wilner, senior vice president at Kantar Media/CMAG, which tracks campaign advertising. 

"The calculation is it can be a wildly inefficient investment, but if you win that race based on reaching a handful of people at the last minute who can make the difference for you, it's the best investment," Wilner said.

The ability to find broader inefficiencies and capitalize on them reach a specific subset of voters became a weapon used by President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign. Niche shows on cable networks became targets across the country. While Obama's team actually spent less than Republican challenger Mitt Romney on ad buys, by all accounts they got substantially more bang for their buck. But the process of finding inefficiencies and targeting small subsets of voters isn't cheap. Obama's team was a $1 billion operation that could do it all in-house. That's a far cry from congressional campaigns, particularly in the lower tier, or campaigns on the state or local level that have to figure out how and where to spend on limited budgets—decisions driven oftentimes by consultants who specialize in different mediums.  

Firms like Targeted Victory are trying to shift the dynamic, bringing the tools they utilize in their digital work to the table in ad buying, overlaying political and geographic data they pull in atop traditional political boundaries, then ranking specific shows for efficiency. The information is marketed toward smaller campaigns—those without the big-dollar budgets. Zac Moffatt, the co-founder of the firm, said the current availability (and accessibility) of new data streams has created a more targeted way of buying designed to cut down on the thousands of campaign dollars going to ads that run outside of the district. "It's crazy," he said. "No other industry would you get away with that." 

That said, Moffatt is realistic about a central hurdle to shifting the model in the hair-on-fire atmosphere of political campaigns. "No one wants to lose a race by half a point and then get called out for doing anything different," said Moffatt.

It's clear new ways of reaching voters are being discovered, enhanced and targeted with almost scary precision every election cycle. Habits are difficult to break, though, and the reach of broadcast TV, even amid all the inefficiencies, is still the central advertising component for campaigns around the country. According to Targeted Victory, campaign spending in congressional races hit $92 million last week. Of that, 72 percent hit voters in the wrong district. Still, with the buys significantly trending toward broadcast TV, it's clear that at this point, campaigns are willing to pay the price for the broader reach. 

"Whether its local cable, or it's digital—all of those areas are growth areas," Wilner said. "But particularly late in a race, it's still going to be broadcast TV."

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