Your Money and Your Votes

For most of the last 30 years, the conventional wisdom in political campaigns - at least at the federal level - was to spend most of the advertising budget on broadcast television.  It may have made sense when broadcast TV was the dominant medium, but it doesn't make sense today.  

The past decade has brought an explosion in new ways to communicate with voters that, combined with new technologies, has made it possible to reach specific, narrowly targeted voting segments. While online ads, mobile communication, and social network organizing all should be considered as part of a campaign's communication planning, one of the biggest shortcomings of Democrats and progressives (as described in yesterday's post) is their failure to take advantage of cable television's microtargeting potential.

A couple facts:  In 2002, for the first time, a bigger share of the TV audience was watching on cable than on broadcast. In 2006, 56% were watching on cable and just 44% on broadcast TV.

So why do so many political consultants continue to recommend that candidates dump most of their communications dollars into broadcast TV?  

More after the jump.

The chart above shows that, in 2006, political campaigns of all stripes put 92% of their television ad dollars into broadcast TV ($1.6 billion) and just 8% into cable ($144 million). That simply makes no sense when 56% of the audience is watching on cable.  

Campaigns and consultants spend a lot of time trying to find the right message. And they spend a lot of time working on the creative to take that message and package it in an ad that motivates voters to support their candidates and causes.  

But for all the time and energy that goes into both the message and the creative, in many cases it seems that little time or effort goes into figuring out how to deliver them in the most effective way possible. And any campaign that isn't taking advantage of new tools and technologies, including cable, to deliver its message and creative to the right audiences is wasting an awful lot of time and money.

It is important to recognize at the outset that buying cable in a way that takes advantage of its microtargeting potential is not simple or easy.  It is much harder, for example, than just buying news and some prime time programming on broadcast TV.  With cable there can be 3, 5 or more separate cable systems that reach a particular Congressional District.  Sometimes those cable systems overlap one another.  In order to make a smart, cost-effective buy, it's essential to figure out which systems reach the neighborhoods where the candidate's target voters live, as well as which cable networks, and which specific programs on those networks, are being watched by the targeted voters.

The Analysis

Our analysis examined cable buys made by independent expenditure organizations supporting Democratic candidates in 2006. The study looked at three of the most competitive Congressional races in the country:  Iowa-01 (Bruce Braley v. Mike Whalen), Kentucky-03 (John Yarmouth v. Anne Northrup), and Ohio-15 (Mary Jo Kilroy v. Deborah Pryce).

The methodology was straightforward.  First, we went to cable systems in each of those markets and got the actual cable buys that were placed by the Democratic organizations. Then we matched their buys with cable system data for the programming in those markets - what was available, how much it would cost for the spots, etc. - and calculated the total spent per week. We assumed, for purposes of the analysis, that their buying firms were paid a commission of 2.5%.  (Many Democratic media consultants outsource their buys to firms that charge 2% - 3%).

Finally, we put together cable buys that were optimized to take advantage of cable's geographic and demographic targeting potential.  For purposes of this analysis, we assumed a commission of 10% (the standard media commission is 15%).  We analyzed and compared the two buys using several metrics, including Total Cost and Gross Ratings Points.

The results:  They weren't only wasting lots of money, they were wasting a lot of it on the wrong voters.  

The Results

The data presented below for the three Congressional Districts has been aggregated for the sake of simplicity.

In the three Congressional races combined, the Democratic groups spent roughly $166,000 per week on cable television ads.  For their money, they got 1,671 Gross Rating Points (GRPs) which averages roughly 209 GRPs per week on each cable system purchased. (Gross Rating Points (GRPs) are a basic benchmark used to measure the impact of television or radio advertising.)  

In Ohio-15 and Kentucky-03, the groups bought the Interconnect, which is a collection of local cable systems in each media market that join together for the purpose of selling ads over a wider part of their respective markets.  In Iowa-01, there is no Interconnect, so the ads were purchased on five cable systems that reach different parts of the Congressional District.

After analyzing the Democratic organizations' buys, we put together cable buys that matched their GRP levels in each of the three markets. By optimizing the cable buys, they could have bought the same number of GRPs (1,671) for just $78,000: a savings of $88,000.  

Even assuming a higher commission, they would have gotten the same number of points for less than half the cost.

But it's not just the money that was wasted. The 1,671 GRPs that they bought (across the three Congressional Districts) is well below the level that would have been needed to make sure their message was getting through - especially in such hotly-contested races late in an election year.

We typically recommend buying between 250-350 GRPs on each cable system, though many factors affect that calculus (e.g. program availability, creative content, and other reinforcing or competing activities in the media market).  For reasons that will be discussed in tomorrow's post, it would have made more sense to buy only the local cable systems that reach Ohio-15 and Kentucky-03 rather than the entire Interconnect. On the 12 local cable systems that reach all 3 CDs, an optimized buy would require about 3,000 GRPs per week (roughly 275 GRPs per system compared to the average 209 GRPs per system purchased by the Democratic groups).  

With an optimized buy, they could have gotten 3,012 GRPs per week at a cost of just over $114,000.  That's nearly twice the GRPs at a savings of $52,000 per week (even after factoring in a 10% commission). Over five weeks, a quarter-million dollars would have been saved.  

Most importantly, it's a buy that takes advantage of cable's geographic and demographic targeting capability.  

Tomorrow:  more details about these buys and how they could be done better.

Tags: advertising, Cable, Media, Media Buying, television (all tags)



Re: Your Money and Your Votes

This is great stuff. Have any of the "great consultants" even attempted to explain spending 92% of their TV budgets on what is now a minority of the population? Are network watchers supposed to be more gullible or something like that?

by curtadams 2007-05-15 10:14AM | 0 recs
Re: Your Money and Your Votes

"Finally, we put together cable buys that were optimized to take advantage of cable's geographic and demographic targeting potential."

How did you do that?

by I voted for Kodos 2007-05-15 10:17AM | 0 recs
Re: Your Money and Your Votes

It's a multi-variable analysis that combines the target demo(s) with the target geography.  Here, we used a Women 35+ demo for the analysis because that was a typical target demo for Democrats and progressives in 2006.  Then we identified the cable systems that best covered the 3 Congressional Districts being analyzed: there were 5 in IA-01, 4 in OH-15, and 2 in KY-03.  For each of those cable systems, we analyzed a number of variables, including the cost per spot, cost per thousand households reached, and ratings for the Women 35+ demo, on all of the cable networks as well as the systems' top programs.  Those are then correlated with the target Gross Rating Points (based, as we noted in the post, on a number of additional factors) and the campaign's budget.

by MacWilliams Kirchner Sanders 2007-05-15 11:58AM | 0 recs
Re: Your Money and Your Votes

Romney has ads on the cable news channels every night.  They make me want to puke.

by enarjay 2007-05-15 10:34AM | 0 recs
About Those Broadcast TV Buys

Here are some possible explanations for why the consultants would argue that buying broadcast TV is still a good idea:

1. Racy content. Broadcast TV has "standards," but cable stations show a little more T&A. Some politicians don't like the juxtaposition.

2. Possible influence over local news coverage. For example, the local news team might re-air the candidate's ad in the news itself.

3. That 44% skews to an older audience, and older people vote.

4. Technical problems. Local ad buys on cable systems still look spliced into the feed, and the cutover isn't always reliable.

5. Time of day control. Broadcast TV can offer more precise block times or even cater to precise spot placement.

6. Look at other advertisers' spending for comparison rather than just eyeballs. Are commercial advertisers spending 56% of their TV ad dollars on cable, or are they skewed, too? Presumably they know what they're doing.

7. Tie-in with local news content. It's one thing to be watching The History Channel for a World War II documentary, but it's another thing to be watching details about a kidnapping on the local news then have a candidate ad talk about fighting crime. In other words, the political ad and broadcast TV content better complement each other, connecting the candidate with real community happenings.

8. Tie-in with free media. Local news will often cover the candidate's speeches and appearances, and the advertising can complement free media.

By the way, it's too bad both vehicles don't offer easier local blocks much longer than 30 seconds. Some presidential candidates have experimented with 5 minute blocks (Dukakis) or even 30 minute blocks (Perot). I'd like to see local candidates have this option. One way is to require broadcasters to give back free time. Incumbents don't like free time because challengers could actually knock them out of office, and the television industry doesn't like it for obvious reasons. However, free time would instantly wipe out much of the need for campaign cash and it could get us out of the stupid 30 second format.

by BBCWatcher 2007-05-15 10:39AM | 0 recs
Re: About Those Broadcast TV Buys

I'm really getting old, but I can remember
when a few segments of hit shows on the
networks were shot a few minutes shorter.
That simple step allowed the nets to sell
5 minute ads for a couple of weeks in late
October. Just a few, but much better than
none at all.

A simple law could require the nets to sell,
say, 10 or 20 of these 5-minute prime time
commercial slots between October 1 and
Election Day, apportioned equally between
the parties. (It would need some complicated
language in case of a Perot/Bloomberg third
party contender, but this is not enough to
derail the plan.)

The nets would scream that such a law would
penalize them vis-a-vis their cable competitors
who do not use the public airwaves and don't
have the same kind of legal obligations.

I'd hope that someone smarter than I am could
find a way to force the cable nets play this
same game on a level playing field with the
broadcasters. But if not, then someone in
the bully pulpit could probably get most
of the cablecasters to come aboard for
"civic duty" and "patriotic" reasons.

by Woody 2007-05-16 06:54AM | 0 recs
Re: Your Money and Your Votes

Well I actually looked at the same buys and put together a package of 5000 GRPs for only $50k.  Seriously is there anything at all to back any of this up?  GRPs shouldn't even be the metric used if you are talking about cable's microtargeting ability.

The only thing that seems at all useful here is "don't buy a bunch of cable systems that don't serve your district just because it's easier."  And I NEVER would have thought of that myself.

by Whoppo 2007-05-15 11:00AM | 0 recs
Re: Your Money and Your Votes

We'll get into more specifics over the next couple of days. Hopefully, that will take care of some of your skepticism. And you're right, this isn't rocket science but the point remains, many Democratic consultants either do not buy cable or are buying it without taking advantage of it's capabilities.

by MacWilliams Kirchner Sanders 2007-05-15 12:03PM | 0 recs
Re: Your Money and Your Votes

What I want to see is a study of how well you can move message on cable v. broadcast.  One consultant I talked to who does buying claimed that numbers are not easily moved on cable as compared to broadcast.  I have seen that it is cheaper, but point by point is it just as effective?  What you and NDN have writen makes logical sense, but thus far I have not seen an effectiveness study to back up the arguments.

by juls 2007-05-15 11:31AM | 0 recs
Re: Your Money and Your Votes

Good question. We do have data showing how cable can move numbers, especially when it's effectively integrated with other campaign communications. One example is Planned Parenthood Action Fund's work in Oregon back in 2004, but we'll get into the details of that later this week.

In the meantime, we want to re-emphasize that this shouldn't be viewed as just cable versus broadcast. It would not make sense to completely throw broadcast over the side and only air ads on cable.  The key, as we noted in yesterday's post, is identifying the right mix of broadcast, cable, radio, online, social networking, mobile, phones, mail, canvass and/or other channels of communication that will work best in a particular campaign.  Having said that, we think that ignoring cable and/or putting all (or the vast majority) of a campaign's TV dollars into broadcast doesn't make sense anymore, especially when so many more people are watching cable and the target voters are in a small geographic subset of the broadcast media market.

by MacWilliams Kirchner Sanders 2007-05-15 01:02PM | 0 recs
Re: Your Money and Your Votes

Thanks for your response.  I would be interested in seeing the data published if possible.  It would be useful to dispel some myths on the subject.

by juls 2007-05-15 01:26PM | 0 recs
Re: Your Money and Your Votes

My guess is that older voters are more likely to stick to traditional broadcast networks.  Since their turnout is disproportionately high, that could be one reason.

Another reason could be that broadcast networks catch the widest cross section demographically.  You're probably able to hit more target groups with adds on broadcast television than on cable stations.  Cable stations are more niche oriented (which can also work to candidate's advantage).

by dmfox 2007-05-15 11:56AM | 0 recs
Re: Your Money and Your Votes

while I use to work in an ad agency I won't claim to be an expert on TV buys.  Those media buyers always made me a bit nervous so I avoided them (I was in the the online group).  However the need for the old school consultants to wake up is certainly there.  

25% of Americans say they got information online in the 2006 elections.

However, less than 1% of all political spending was spent online. (Pew Internet Project, 2007)

I'm sure anyone reading this would understand that the internet is a popular way for people to get info these days.  1% of your budget on the internet?   That makes sense.  

Some bit of understanding that seems to be lacking is that people who use the internet are ACTIVELY LOOKING for information on candidates.  You run your boring cookie cutter TV ads and people are tuning you out or switching channels.  Which people do you think are more likely to vote?

by onemadson 2007-05-15 11:58AM | 0 recs
Re: Your Money and Your Votes

Also there's what - a zillion? - channels of cable and only a few of broadcast.  More people may be watching cable, but how many channels do you have to cover?

by jackjumper 2007-05-15 12:28PM | 0 recs
Re: Your Money and Your Votes

It's best to cover only the channels and programs that are being watched by the campaign's target audiences. Airing ads on most or all of the stations isn't taking advantage of cable's targeting potential.

by MacWilliams Kirchner Sanders 2007-05-15 02:12PM | 0 recs
Re: Your Money and Your Votes

A friendly tip to the MKS folks:  please don't use misleading data to make your points.

The chart you use to start off this post is for viewership levels during primetime only.  It does not represent sign-on-to-sign-off data.  In fact, if you go to the Cable Television Bureau's own web site, they have a similar chart, except they include the label that the data is for primetime viewership only ( rax/hh-share-trend.shtml).

Why is this important?  Because you are only looking at a three hour slice of the entire broadcast day, and completely omitting the viewership local broadcast stations build during local news (morning shows, early and late news), as well as their syndicated blocks during early fringe and prime access.

Television is watched throughout the day.  The average TV is turned on eight hours per day, and the average person watches over 4 1/2 hours per day -- the highest amount ever recorded by Nielsen (go to for this data).

On most political buys, primetime accounts only for 10-15% at most of the total points, so only looking at viewership during this daypart, and then extending that analysis to the entire broadcast day is highly misleading.  Cable simply does not hold the majority of viewership across the entire broadcast day.  Primetime, yes.  The rest of the day, cable's viewership becomes minuscule.

Now, should campaigns be smarter about buying cable?  Of course.  Should it always be included as part of a campaign's communications plan? Certainly.  Can it be a smarter method to micro target unique audiences?  Without a doubt.

But, please don't discredit your analysis with misleading data, and imply that campaigns should be spending the majority of their ad dollars on cable.

And, to be fair, you need to also discuss the significant hurdles the cable industry presents to political campaigns, such as the overly restrictive spot limits, overly broad daypart rotator requirements (very few systems allow campaigns the ability to buy by specifc program, unlike broadcast), denying access to soft systems which forces buys to larger interconnects, high costs (3-4 times more expensive than TV on a cost per contact basis), and problems with spot inventory management resulting in excessive post-election refunds.

Thanks.  Looking forward to your next post.

by springbank 2007-05-15 02:18PM | 0 recs
Re: Your Money and Your Votes

And, to be fair, you need to also discuss the significant hurdles the cable industry presents to political campaigns, such as the overly restrictive spot limits, overly broad daypart rotator requirements (very few systems allow campaigns the ability to buy by specifc program, unlike broadcast), denying access to soft systems which forces buys to larger interconnects, high costs (3-4 times more expensive than TV on a cost per contact basis), and problems with spot inventory management resulting in excessive post-election refunds.

This seems like it could be fleshed out for an informative post.  Why not do it yourself ;)

by juls 2007-05-15 02:33PM | 0 recs
Re: Your Money and Your Votes

I'm a big believer in cable. On the Wulsin campaign this past year, we had big arguments about how much to put on broadcast versus cable. I was the cable advocate, and I lost the battle. But, to be fair, I think we did max out the amount of cable spots that the provider allowed us to buy for the final two weeks. They just wouldn't let us buy one spot for every show that was on during the day on a given channel. We could only do 3 or 4 per day per channel, if I recall correctly. Very annoying.

by AdyBarkan 2007-05-15 03:15PM | 0 recs
Re: Your Money and Your Votes

You're right: it's incredibly annoying when cable systems limit your spots.  It's annoying when that happens on broadcast or radio, too - which it does.  Placing buys earlier in the cycle for those closing weeks when things get really tight can help avoid the problem.  Sometimes hard negotiating can get more spots - and sometimes not.  All of that reinforces the importance of optimizing the buy that you can get.  And of identifying and integrating the best, most cost-effective media mix for delivering the campaign's message to its targeted voters.

by MacWilliams Kirchner Sanders 2007-05-16 11:14AM | 0 recs
Re: Your Money and Your Votes

Thanks, Springbank, for the friendly tip. However, your point about our chart being misleading is wrong.  We went back and verified that the numbers in our chart are, in fact, for total day household viewing (Monday-Sunday 24 hours).  They are not just for primetime.  More evidence comes from the chart you link, which shows that cable's share of the primetime viewing audience did not surpass broadcast until 2003.  But when looked at over the entire day (see chart below - another version of what we posted yesterday), cable passed broadcast in 2001/02.  

But thanks for getting us to double-check the data again, because we didn't want to mislead anyone.  Even if it had been primetime data, our point is that more and more people are watching cable and that political campaigns should be taking advantage of cable's microtargeting potential rather than just putting the vast majority of their ad budget on broadcast.  And the key to optimizing cable buys (as with broadcast) is to find the times, networks and programs being watched by the campaign's target audiences - whether it is in primetime or during other dayparts.  

We agree that there are significant challenges to buying cable for political campaigns, and we will touch briefly on those in the next posts.  It requires a lot of work both to negotiate with the cable systems and to optimize the buys.  It's why we never tell anyone that buying cable is simple or easy.  Having said that, it can be done. It requires pushing back - sometimes hard - when cable systems don't want to sell individual spots or try to get you on the Interconnect.  It takes more time and effort, and it doesn't always play out the way you'd like, but it's the right thing, and the best thing, to do for the candidates and campaigns.

by MacWilliams Kirchner Sanders 2007-05-16 09:08AM | 0 recs
Re: Your Money and Your Votes

In my head, it is book length.  Once I get it under the file size limit for this place, I will.

by springbank 2007-05-15 02:54PM | 0 recs
Any references on how to target ads?

This is an interesting thread, and I'm appreciating how little I know about ad buys and how one would use market segmentation/targetting info in order to do an "optimal buy" of ads.

Can any of you pros recommend articles/books on the subject?  My sense is that the quant-marketing literature will be more valuable than the political lit by itself.  In fact, if the political types are not reading the quant-marketing people, it's malpractice, pure and simple.

What are some good sources to read to get a handle on this?

by Rob Thorne 2007-05-15 07:18PM | 0 recs


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