Thinking / Media impact for brands during political election years

Media impact for brands during political election years

Director of Planning Tim Wild and Strategic Planner Stefanie Riediger contributed to this story.

Media, particularly television media, has long been a critical tool used in presidential election campaigns. However, in the past decade, the U.S. has seen significant changes in how media is used for politics. Election campaigns are adopting digital and social platforms, targeting constituents more specifically, and spending larger media budgets than ever before. In addition, the federal government guarantees candidates’ airtime within election windows that cannot be pre-empted, and for the lowest unit rates available. Unfortunately, for commercial brands, this creates havoc, making it very difficult to continue advertising as usual. With a presidential election and a Summer Olympics coming in 2016, brands must challenge themselves to rethink and refine their media strategy for the year.

the state of political advertising

There are two key periods in an election cycle certain to impact media planning. These windows begin 45 days prior to the primaries (occurring January 2016 to June 2016; tentative dates by state are located here), and 60 days prior to the general election (September 7, 2016 to November 8, 2016). These windows are the only times presidential candidate campaigns are legally permitted to advertise.

However, in 2010, the “Citizens United” ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court protected corporate and union funding of political advertising under the First Amendment, giving rise to Super PACs (Political Action Committees). While Super PACs are not guaranteed the same right to airtime or the lowest rates like presidential candidates, they are free to advertise in support of a candidate outside of these election windows, and have extremely deep pockets.

the impact on media

Within election windows, particularly in the two to three weeks prior to the election, political advertising takes over available airtime. Regional and local vendors across the nation reported 50-90% saturation in 2012. Plus, if there are time slots that are not pre-empted by political ads, the cost to run a branded spot can jump 10-200%.

This supply and demand issue in combination with the rise of Super PACs led 2012 to be a record spending year for political advertising – totalling upwards of $9 billion total and $3.1 billion in television media alone. The 2016 presidential election is predicted to be the most expensive in history, possibly accruing $4 billion in television advertising alone.

The incorporation of Super PAC advertising also means that political spending starts earlier and spreads through more months of the year than previously allowed. Some analysts are predicting that “2016 political spend could start as early as Q4 2015” and in some key markets, the amount of political dollars being spent outside of the 2012 political windows has been three times more than expected.

While 2008 saw the introduction of social and digital political advertising, 2012 made it a line item. And in 2016 that line item number is expected to grow. In fact, Facebook now offers political support as part of its service offering, which means that advertisers can add higher cost per point (CPP) and cost per thousand (CPM) to sold-out digital video spots. According to AdWeek, “Digital ad spending is unquestionably enormous, but local TV spots are still where the real influence is.”

Advertising price increases on social sites (which is a large paid traffic source for most political advertisers) could push presidential candidates and Super PACs into spending more on search engine marketing, especially on the Yahoo-Bing network, where the cost per click remains lower for many keywords.

“The cost per click (CPC) to run social ads on Facebook rose 180% from the start to the end of Q1 2015. It's reflective in Facebook's fourth quarter 2014 earnings report, reporting revenues in the U.S. up 54% sequentially,” as reported by MediaPost’s Data Insider. TechCrunch notes that revenue per advertiser in the U.S. grew 24% during the same time period, suggesting brands paid more. 

The political media force is expected to fire on all cylinders for 2016, raising the ante with a concentrated presence again. Plus, the Summer Olympics will take over the conversation August 5-21. What does that mean for a brand? Revisit and revise media tactics while building upon your customer relationship management (CRM), owned and earned channels. Brands must be proactive, leverage a variety of communications channels and be ready to pivot.


For seasonal brands, this presents additional challenges. The following are guidelines from the Marcus Thomas approach to planning for 2016:

  • Be mindful of election windows.
    • If at all possible, avoid television media during the specified election windows and one week after the general presidential election. Media spending should shift to before August and after mid-November or later.
    • If television media is required, at minimum avoid the two to three weeks before the election, when availability and costs will be at their worst. Also, political advertising favors broadcast, so consider cable television options as a way to proceed.
    • Avoid “battleground” states when at all possible. The degree of political advertising pressure is largely determined by the state’s battleground status. In 2012, these states included Florida (29 electoral votes), Pennsylvania (20), Ohio (18), Michigan (16), North Carolina (15), Virginia (13), Minnesota (10), Wisconsin (10), Colorado (9), Iowa (6), New Mexico (5) and New Hampshire (4).
    • Consider alternative dayparts. Political advertising tends to take over prime time news access and early fringe dayparts.
  • Plan and buy early.
    • In addition to “locking-in” key flight dates and cheaper rates, schedules placed further in advance will be the last ones to be bumped for political ads.
    • Stay in close, collaborative contact with media representatives to ensure that opportunities are capitalized on and adjustments made more fluidly.
    • Thinking ahead offers greater flexibility (substitutions, upgrades, makegoods, etc).
  • Be nimble. Expect changes and be ready to react sensibly with a plan B.
    • Political advertising targets can change weekly depending on poll results and changing strategies. Keep a diligent eye on available opportunities as they arise.
  • Expect to pay an additional 7-15% across the board, possibly more in some circumstances.
  • Consider alternatives.
    • Relying on one advertising medium during an election is a critical mistake – especially if that medium is television.
    • Spend smarter. While consumer media habits include more mobile, online and social media to get news now, political advertising is still primarily focused on traditional channels. Leverage more targeted approaches within these channels.
    • Digital, radio, search, social media and events are all still valid media, but may require some increased costs.
  • Build and leverage your owned audiences.
    • This includes email, direct mail, cookies from your website and social followers.
    • The cost to message your owned audiences can be free, based on the channel you use.
    • Consider funding and running campaigns specifically geared towards building these audiences, now up to the election rate increase periods we have outlined above.
    • Work with your PR and social media teams to create editorial calendars that can be run during the election windows where media costs may be too cost- prohibitive to run. Include mechanisms for sharing the content to ensure your content drives additional earned impressions.
    • If you have not invested in a CRM platform or do not have a CRM contact strategy and editorial calendar, now is the time to start leveraging this channel.  Mirroring your social and PR social calendar can make sense here.
    • Tag your sites strategically to ensure you are collecting and harvesting all the traffic. This will allow you to build your cookie database for remarketing efforts.  Remarketing efforts with social sharing mechanisms can allow you to drive additional “free” impressions during this expensive, and highly competitive, media environment.

A word about the olympics

There is one other factor that comes into play for media planning and buying during 2016.This is the Summer Olympics, which will air from Friday, August 5 through Sunday, August 15.

The Olympics air on all NBC affiliates throughout the county. This includes NBC cable affiliates such as USA Network, CNBC and NBC Sports among others. There is an upcharge in pricing that goes with the Olympics, however package pricing can be done.

The Olympics does affect all television, not just NBC affiliates, in that you may see increased pricing across all networks due to supply and demand. Another thing to keep in mind is that other networks may air rerun programming during this time in order not to compete with the Olympics. Therefore you may be paying higher than average pricing for specific programs, especially during prime time.