There's one problem few consultants are willing to admit.
There is a black hole in your living room and nobody wants to talk about it.
For years, TV ads have been the best way to reach voters and for good reason. TV ads are the best advertising vehicle available. They’ve got sight, sound, movement and drama. A piece of mail, on the other hand, requires reading. That’s work. An Internet ad is low information and low notice. It can deliver video, if the voter clicks.
Even better, TV ads are involuntary—or at least they used to be. With mail, you have to actually read to get the message. With TV ads, you have to do something to avoid the message. But now DVRs are in more than half of American households, and that’s made watching TV ads far more voluntary.
Here’s a reality not enough political consultants are willing to face: the once magnificent reach of television advertising has diminished. In its place has emerged a gaping black hole and almost a third of the electorate that consultants work so hard to reach is located inside.
The real problem in all of this is coverage, because in politics coverage is critical. In business, a 3 percent market share can put you on the cover of Fortune magazine. In politics, a 49 percent market share is considered failure.
A survey from Say Media, oft-cited by the Romney campaign, found that 31 percent of respondents said they had not watched a live television program in the last week. We know that the vast majority of ads on recorded programs are skipped. Even worse, there is a growing disparity in television consumption.
In many markets, older voters are spending as much as 90 hours per week glued to their sets. Meanwhile, as many as 30 percent of the electorate are watching little more than an hour of TV per day. These low TV consumers are the ones most likely to own a DVR.
Not surprisingly, few campaigns have made any adjustment at all. Media consultants, the most powerful players at the campaign table, seldom acknowledge or even discuss the problem. They will admit that your TV buy does not have the same impact it did 10 years ago.
Their solution? Just up the buy. This is exactly the trend we saw in 2010. But if a voter isn’t watching the ads, does it really matter how many spots you buy?
So what do we do about this problem? It’s pretty simple. We have to understand which voters aren’t watching TV ads and we have to decide what else to do. The first step is admitting the problem exists.
There are clear patterns to TV consumption. Older voters watch more; younger voters watch less. Educated voters watch less TV, while less educated voters watch more. Gender, Internet use, ethnicity and other factors are all strong predictors of TV consumption.
You can buy the Nielsen data. You can understand DVR ownership and use. And when you accumulate that data, you can build models that predict, with accuracy, the probability that any voter will see your TV ad 10 times, five times, once or never.
So step one: define the hole. Step two: fill it. And filling it will require different strategies for different voters.
Let’s start with mail. Survey research and control group experiments suggest, surprisingly, that middle-aged voters are better targets for mail. Older voters, many of whom are watching upwards of 70 hours of TV per week, don’t need the mail. They are seeing your ads upwards of 20 times. But among middle aged voters, who watch a lot less TV, mail is more valued and control group experiments suggest mail has more impact with this group.
How about younger voters? They are watching the least amount of television and they are watching it in non-traditional ways. Based upon focus groups and other experimental data, they are also poor targets for mail. Probably the best way to reach younger people is on the Internet.
The truth is that Internet targeting is fabulous—even better than mail. The problem is that the ad vehicle is weak. The Internet has revolutionized how we organize supporters, fundraise and energize our base. But as a method of persuasion it has disappointed. Advertising to younger voters is the toughest problem in politics today.
What lies before us is a puzzle. TV still occupies most of the space, but deciding how to fit these mediums together to fill the growing holes in television coverage is the most important and interesting challenge facing campaigns today. And whatever coverage problem we have now is likely to only grow in the future.
As political strategists, we have the tools to solve this problem. So let’s stop wasting time, because until we figure this out, the new black hole of television ad coverage will leave a large part of the electorate beyond our reach.
Hal Malchow is a longtime Democratic strategist and voter targeting pioneer. He's also a board member at the Analyst Institute.
This article is part of a series of pieces offering 10 bold ideas for the future of political consulting. Read also: The future of direct mail is digital; The case for certified political managers; Money in politics: Time to embrace it; Challenging a new generation of consultants; Give candidates the ability to fight back