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Political Advertising Spending Exploded In 2020: Did It Work?


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The votes have been counted, the certifications are almost complete, and the biggest 2020 election day winner was undeniable … political publicity. In a year that was extraordinary in every imaginable – and unimaginable – way, it’s no shock that 2020 would bring unprecedented levels of political ad spending. But despite all the tables on who spent what money where, the election results show that there is still a lot to be done to find out what worked – and what didn’t.

I’ve done a lot of research with John Link, a former head of political advertising at CBS-owned and operated TV stations and now a senior executive at AdImpact (formerly Advertising Analytics), which provides and is releasing comprehensive analysis of the political advertising landscape became his “Review of the 2020 Political Cycle”. Link is a source of wisdom on the subject, and there is much to unzip.

In the 2019-2020 election cycle, total TV, radio and digital media spending on political advertising was $ 8.5 billion. That was 30% more than the $ 6.7 billion forecast earlier this year and 108% more than spending in 2017-2018, which was a record at the time. We’ve seen 9.3 million TV commercials in over 4,300 federal, state, and local elections alone (I know if you live in a battlefield state it probably seemed like more). And none of that money includes the $ 299 million previously spent on political ads in Georgia’s two Senate races.

From the time I started my early career in politics and then in the television business, it was pretty certain that Republicans would raise more money and spend more money than Democrats. 2020 landed 180 degrees away from that expectation when the Democrats spent the Republicans $ 4.7 billion to $ 2.7 billion (the remaining was independent spending). AdImpact found that the Democrats had a “commanding spending head start” in the general election. In Congress, Senate Democrats outperformed their GOP peers by $ 549 million to $ 319 million (almost exactly the same percentage gap as in the presidential race), and in the House of Representatives, Democrats outperformed Republicans by $ 663 million to $ 511 million (a difference of 30%). A quick look at the election results shows you that the total number of votes did not match these spending differences.

Media analysts will delve into some fascinating aspects of the 2020 political advertising environment that will have an impact on political advertising far beyond. First, 80% of paid advertising still went to radio and cable television (also known as “linear television”). This is a lower percentage than in previous elections, but an impressive percentage considering that even in the last two years we have seen a sharp drop in linear TV viewership and a significant increase in households dropping out of cable or satellite TV . Unfortunately, it has also resulted in more and more ads reaching fewer and fewer voters. How much is enough

Underlying the rising spending (in total dollars, if not proportions) on TV advertising is the fact that there is still ample evidence that TV spending is a relatively good buy for the money compared to its competitors. In a 2018 report titled “Stretching Political Dollars,” AdImpact and Nielsen focused on political advertising in four major US metropolitan areas: Phoenix, Minneapolis, Tampa, and Orlando. The “main conclusion” of the report was “how effective television advertising remains” in reaching “high frequency voters”. Of course, just because television is efficient at getting horses to water, does it actually make them drink? Much harder to demonstrate.

As is known to most in the advertising world, spending on digital political advertising exploded in 2020. In the 2015-2016 election cycle, around 2-3% of political advertising expenditure was spent on digital media. In this case that has increased to 18%. The roughly 700 to 800 million US dollars in digital advertising spending in the 2017-2018 election cycle became 1.6 billion US dollars this year. However, the use of the money still suggests experimentation as to what type of advertising works where. As the link from AdImpact points out, 75% of Facebook spend was focused on raising donations through campaign posts or the purchase of goods. A far smaller percentage aimed at voter conviction, which is still the focus of most TV commercials.

The new kid on the block, Connected TV, was relatively minimal this cycle, making up only 1-2% of total political ad spend. As Link pointed out, there is far less transparency about political spending in this world than there is on linear television, even for “established” CTV players like Roku and Hulu. Remember, however, that just four years ago all digital policy spending was 2-3% and today it is 18%. You have to think that CTV will experiment and grow a lot more.

Another challenge facing media buyers in this election cycle was that the proportion of undecided voters, particularly in the presidential election, was at historically low levels. This makes it particularly difficult for advertising to influence the choice. And of course, no 2020 story would be complete without a reference to COVID-19. As Link told me, the spate of early in-person and mail-in votes, in part caused by the pandemic, resulted in many planned media purchases being made after a growing percentage of voters had already voted. Fortunately, in the face of a pandemic, we won’t have to vote for President or Congress again (soon), but it is very likely that extended voting periods and alternative choices will in some way remain. This, in turn, will add further complexity to the timing and message of political advertising.

Finding out how to be most effective in political advertising will require a lot of rethinking and new data analysis. I don’t know anyone who raises their kids to be political media buyers, but in a turbulent economy, I’d say that’s a pretty good investment strategy right now.


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