If Obama Had Focused On Content When Placing TV Ads, He Wouldn't Be President Today

Dave Morgan

Founder & CEO

Originally posted on MediaPost

Incredibly, political advertising seems to have surged ahead of the general market in using data and technology in TV ad buying. This past weekend, The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story about the Obama reelection campaign’s use of data in buying and targeting more than $400 million in TV advertising.

The Times piece gave us a glimpse of how the Obama campaign significantly outperformed the Romney campaign in TV ad buying, where each campaign spent the lion’s share of their media budgets. Obama’s team leveraged precise, set-top-box data for their TV buying and targeting, rejecting the decades-old, broad ratings-driven approach that the Romney team employed, and which most marketers and their agencies continue to use today. Basically, the Obama team used the anonymous viewing data to figure out which shows specific groups of voters were most likely to be watching and used that information to make smarter and cheaper buys.

Did smarter and cheaper TV media swing the election for Obama? It’s impossible to know. However, the election was close enough, and TV media was such an important part of the campaign, that it’s not hard to believe that the better use of almost one-half billion dollars of spend was a crucial factor in returning Obama to the White House. Plus, I’m a big believer in the power of advertising, so that notion is in line with my biases as well. As I read the article, I was struck by several concepts where what the Obama campaign did seemed to be at odds with what were used to in commercial advertising. Here are a few:

It wasn’t about the content. Unlike most general-market TV advertisers, who love to talk about how much they love the content of the shows they support (which, as you would imagine, provides immense pleasure and profits to the people who sell them those ads), Obama’s team didn’t talk about the content at all – only about the audiences they were trying to reach and what the data told them. To them, shows were just surrogates for the specific groups of voters or influencers that they wanted to reach.

The rhetoric followed the action, rather than preceding it. It’s hard to read ad and media trades these days and not see someone’s quote about how they are going to start using data and technology to do a better job buying TV advertising – and then they go right back to making the same upfront buys that they’ve made for years. In the ad business, rhetoric about change can precede actual actions and real change by years. Here, the Obama campaign just went out and did it, and didn’t talk about it until after the campaign was well over.

Unique group of people. A big theme of the story was the unique and quite talented group the campaign assembled to pull this off. They were true experts in data and direct marketing, not just folks from legacy media agencies re-badged with data and technology titles, which we see all too often. Instead, they were the types of folks you typically find attracted to start-ups and trying to change markets and get rich in the process. This was part of their motivation here, since their hope was to use the campaign work as a springboard to revolutionizing the entire $60 billion-$70 billion U.S. TV media marketplace.

I believe that if Obama had focused only on the content of the shows where his campaign bought ads, he wouldn’t be president today. What do you think?

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