If you think your Facebook news feed is more clogged with political ads than ever this year, it’s not just you: the 2018 election is shaping up as the biggest one yet for digital political communication, with campaigns, super PACs, and outside groups spending increasingly more money to blanket the internet and social media with ads.
The ads that are popping up all over your computer, tablet and phone screens are taking more forms than ever, too, from short clips to longer videos made for the web, and shareable reminders to donate money to ominous attacks on an opponent.
So far in the 2018 cycle, Minnesota’s competitive federal candidates, along with the outside groups that back them, are making significant investments in those online ads: DFL Sen. Tina Smith’s campaign, for example, has spent $260,000 on contracts with one California firm for digital consulting and advertising, and has put some 900 ads on Facebook over the past few months.
Outside groups, like the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC that backs up Republicans, are spending record amounts of money — $20 million, according to the group — on digital ads in battleground U.S. House districts, including several in Minnesota.
It’s likely that Minnesota voters will hear from more candidates and groups, and on more online platforms, this year than in any election before it. Campaign operatives and political media experts say that online ads — once looked down upon as a waste of time and money compared to TV — are now an unavoidable investment for any campaign that hopes to have a shot at victory.
Thanks to improved transparency rules, in 2018, it’s easier to observe just how precisely campaigns are using online ads to shape narratives and voter attitudes — right down to the ad you saw scrolling through Facebook a few weeks ago before going to bed.
Casting a wider ’net
Digital ads have been on the rise in politics in the last few election cycles — particularly in 2016, when the campaign of Donald Trump invested significant resources in the low-cost medium to target voters with their campaign message.
That year, however, online platforms were abused, with shadowy foreign entities taking advantage of lax disclosure rules and deploying thousands of digital ads to sway voters, and tech marketing firms taking advantage of user data to target specific people with particular ads. Those developments prompted Facebook, Google and others to make it easier for the public to see who runs political ads online, who they target, and how much they cost.
While that picture isn’t exact — on Google and Facebook, for example, information about an ad reveals a range for how much it cost instead of an exact amount — it is nevertheless clearer to the public who is paying for online ads, and who they are trying to reach with them.
The 2018 midterms may be a breakthrough for digital ad usage in state and district-level races, as hundreds of congressional campaigns increasingly turn to the medium. Last year, market research firm Borrell Associates estimated that digital advertising will hit a record high in these midterms, projecting expenditures to surpass $1.8 billion for the first time ever.
In 2014, the last midterm election cycle, campaigns and outside groups spent less than one percent of their advertising budgets on digital ads; in 2018, that figure is projected to jump to 22 percent.
Google offers a searchable database on political ads that compiles information about which groups are paying for political ads on its platform. It reports that, so far, political entities have spent just over $500,000 on digital ads in Minnesota, which is much less than Florida, where a nation-leading $2.5 million has been spent, but is on par with states like New York and New Jersey.
The Wesleyan Media Project, which analyzes political ads, issued a report on September 13 that found digital spending taking up an increasingly larger share of overall ad spending in 14 of the most competitive U.S. Senate races, including the special election contest between Smith and GOP state Sen. Karin Housley.
For Smith’s campaign, Facebook and Google ads made up 9 percent of ad expenditures, while those ads accounted for 7.4 percent of spending from Housley’s campaign. Among Minnesota’s federal races, Smith and Housley’s campaigns are leading the pack in digital ads, at least by the numbers: Facebook’s searchable Ad Archive shows Smith’s campaign has placed roughly 900 ads on its platform, while Housley’s has placed roughly 200.
A few U.S. House-level campaigns are investing heavily in digital, too: Dean Phillips, the Democratic candidate challenging GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen in the 3rd Congressional District, has placed roughly 250 ads on Facebook so far, and has paid a California-based firm called Trilogy Interactive at least $180,000 for digital advertising and consulting. (Trilogy is the same firm that Smith has worked with.)
Facebook’s Ad Archive shows that two other DFL congressional campaigns, those of 2nd District candidate Angie Craig and 1st District candidate Dan Feehan, are also investing in digital ads, placing 160 and 130 ads to date, respectively.
Outside groups have also been active in Minnesota’s key federal races: the conservative Congressional Leadership Fund has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on digital ads attacking DFL candidates such as Feehan and Phillips, while the Democratic House Majority PAC is bankrolling ad campaigns against Republicans like CD1 candidate Jim Hagedorn.
A taxonomy of digital ads
There might be no political communication more versatile than the digital ad: it can take the form of a video with visuals and audio, but unlike a TV ad, it isn’t bound to the 30-second or 60-second constraints of broadcasting. Digital ads can also be images with talking points or news clips, but unlike a piece of direct mail, they are cheaper and can more easily support other campaign goals, like fundraising.
Campaigns and outside ads have put a variety of different kinds of digital ads to work this election cycle, offering a glimpse of what the medium can do.
The straight TV ad cut
Campaigns commonly use the online platform to simply run the ads they are already airing on TV. This ad, for example, repurposes a TV spot from Joe Radinovich, the DFL candidate in the 8th Congressional District race. The Radinovich campaign is running two versions of posts featuring the ad, which shows Radinovich mountain biking on a trail while he narrates his vision to “take our country back.” Each version cost between $500 and $1,000, reaching anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 people, a metric Facebook calls “impressions.” Joe Davis, executive director for the DFL-aligned group Alliance for a Better Minnesota, has been involved with digital strategy for years. In the early days, he says, “you’d chop up a TV ad and put it on YouTube.”
John Rouleau, executive director of the conservative Minnesota Jobs Coalition, says it’s a tried-and-true strategy: “We know we’ve got a message that resonates on a wide scale,” he says of the thinking, “and you’re just looking to cover your bases and you don’t care if they see your ad on TV or online.”
The digital native ad — that sometimes goes viral
Campaigns are also using online platforms to run video ads that may not work for TV, but could catch fire on the web if done well. This month, Dean Phillips’ campaign released an 82-second spot that follows around “Bigfoot” as he attempts to find out whether Congressman Paulsen — supposedly so tied up in meetings with corporate bigwigs that he can’t be found — actually exists.
The ad quickly went viral: Within a day, it was the talk of Twitter, praised by journalists and political operatives, and had been written up in several online media outlets, some of which called it the best ad so far this election cycle. The Phillips campaign had set up a website — “wefoundbigfoot.com” — to fundraise off the popular video.
ABM’s Davis held up the Bigfoot ad as a perfect example of what a good online video ad can accomplish: raise awareness of a candidate and drive fundraising while also telling a persuasive narrative about an opponent.
“It meets the much higher creative threshold and bar for Facebook to get someone’s attention,” Davis said, “a much higher bar than there is for the passive experience of watching a TV ad.”
The image ad
The image ad is the online equivalent of a mail piece, a virtual graphic that pops up in a user’s social media feed or on a sidebar of a website that communicates a particular message to that voter on the other end.
Unlike TV ads, which are intended for a more general audience, this kind of online ad can advance a specific message targeted at a particular set of voters. This ad from Housley’s campaign highlights the Republican’s opposition to pro athletes kneeling during the national anthem as a form of protest, an issue popular with the conservative base of Trump supporters. The ad began running on social media on September 23, targeting social media users on the day of a Minnesota Vikings home game — a task of timing that a direct mail ad could not do so precisely.
Rouleau says these kinds of digital ads can be useful in communicating with different demographics in different parts of the state: “If you’re a conservative running in the suburbs and you need to highlight different things to different voters,” he said, “emphasizing different things based on what you know people are interested in and how they might react is a benefit of digital.”
The outside group attack ad
If you’ve already had enough of the attack ads funded by outside super PACs blanketing your TV this fall, well, you’ve probably already had enough of them clogging your social media feeds.
Partisan outside groups like the Congressional Leadership Fund have been investing big in online attack ads against their party rivals. In CLF’s case, they’ve run ads against most of their targeted DFL opponents in Minnesota, attacking them for not doing enough to denounce Rep. Keith Ellison, the DFL candidate for attorney general who was accused of physical and emotional abuse by an ex-girlfriend.
CLF’s ad, shown here on Google’s ad database, hit “politician Angie Craig” for “standing by” Ellison. With a cost of up to $50,000, the ad made anywhere from 100,000 to 1 million impressions — a sizeable investment for the online arena.
The fundraiser ad
It’s not often you encounter a TV ad imploring the audience to give a candidate money — candidates raise money so that they can buy TV ads in the first place. But online ads can be a useful way to communicate fundraising pitches to a large audience, and because they’re so cheap, they often provide a good return on that investment.
This ad from Smith’s campaign, for example, brings up Housley’s own TV ad campaign and asks the viewer for a contribution so that the senator can keep a TV ad of her own — in this case, a spot that showcases Smith’s work in the Senate for agriculture — running on the air. The Facebook ad, which ran in mid-September and reached no more than 1,000 people for a cost of less than $100, links to the website ActBlue, a platform that Democrats use for online fundraising.
It’s unclear how effective that ad was in raising money — we don’t know how many of the dozens of people who clicked on it ultimately gave money to Smith’s campaign — but it was apparently seen as a worthwhile investment by her camp, and most campaigns in Minnesota are making similar moves.
The get out the vote ad
Online ads can be a useful way to remind core voter groups to show up on Election Day, and it’s usually a less expensive reminder than sending out a mailer.
So, campaigns and big political groups are investing in get-out-the-vote online ads, like the AFL-CIO is doing above for Minnesota’s early voting period, with links to registration info and the slate of candidates that the labor union has endorsed. Campaigns and outside groups also used online ads to get the word out for the August primaries, and as early voting ramps up and election day nears, these voting-focused ads are likely to proliferate.
A digital future?
Though online ads are poised to be a bigger deal in Minnesota and around the country this year, TV is still the gold standard of political communication: spending on broadcast TV ads is projected to total $3.5 billion across the country this year.
Who watches TV in the U.S. helps explain why the medium continues to reign supreme in political media, says Mike Franz of the Wesleyan Media Project. “Most of the people who watch live TV are older,” he says, “and they vote.” (“90 percent of the funding we’re able to see is going to TV,” he added.)
“Broadcast is still king if you’re thinking about how to reach the most voters,” Rouleau said. He and others characterized a political media environment dominated by consultants with expertise in the mechanics of TV, many of whom remain dismissive that online ads are a worthwhile investment. “There are skeptical people who just understand they’re going to have to do it, but don’t really believe it or trust it,” Rouleau said of old-school types.
But in that mindset is an acknowledgement of the new political media future: digital can’t be ignored. There will be a day, argues Franz, in which digital overtakes TV as younger generations predisposed to streaming services and cutting the cord come of age and vote more frequently.
“Within 10 or 15 years, the landscape is going to be incredibly different,” he said. “TV will begin to trail off, probably at a much faster pace than what we might be seeing right now.”
Courtney Alexander, communications director of the Congressional Leadership Fund, said her group’s $20 million investment in digital ads in these midterms shows that many key players believe these big shifts in political media are underway now.
“We’ve rejected the old model of just spending 98, 99 percent of your budget on TV,” she said. “People are completely changing the way they consume news… Digital is 30 percent of our budget. The world is changing.”