Voters’ changing TV viewing habits are forcing media buyers to be more creative. One strategy that’s emerged, which the Clinton campaign employed aggressively in 2016, is a heavier focus on buying local cable spots.
It’s based on the assumption that as news consumption shifts online, the best place to catch voters is while they’re watching lifestyle or entertainment networks. Those happen to be on local cable. Now, instead of buying spots on the local NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox affiliates, some top campaigns are putting a greater focus on buying channels like HGTV in, say, Manchester, N.H.
In 2016, NCC Media, a company jointly owned by Comcast, Cox Communications and Time Warner Cable, estimates that local cable received roughly 21 percent of all candidate dollars devoted to television advertising.
While the Trump campaign ran very few spots on local cable – or spots on television in general – the Clinton camp invested heavily in the medium. In fact, Clinton invested significantly more than the Obama campaign did on local cable four years earlier. According to the final report on media spending in 2016 compiled by the Wesleyan Media Project, Clinton aired some 150,000 more spots than Obama on local cable.
One of the reasons Clinton’s media strategists may have opted for local cable is that it provides better targeting than national buys or local broadcast. In other words, microtargeting of a homogenous set of voters was the selling point. A Clinton media consultant didn’t respond to a request for comment on strategy.
Meanwhile, Tim Kay, who serves as the director of political strategy for NCC Media, said the Wesleyan findings “reflects the impact set top box viewing is having on identifying where voters are spending time watching television.”
“People are calling for the end of big data, but set top box viewing data combined with voter data, gives accurate and real insight into what targeted voters are watching and that is more cable,” Kay told C&E.
Despite ultimately losing the election to Trump, Wesleyan Media Project’s Erika Franklin Fowler, Travis Ridout and Michael Franz argue that Clinton’s local cable strategy was effective.
“It does seem clear that the Clinton campaign relied heavily on targeted strategies, especially in some key states, such as Wisconsin and Michigan, where her campaign aired local cable advertising rather than broader appeals on local broadcast. Here too the outcome of the election belies a clear inference that such efforts worked,” they note in their final report.
Where Clinton may have be let down was her creative. “Fewer than 10 percent of ads attacking Trump focused on his policies whereas about 90 percent was focused on Trump as an individual,” the academics write. “By and large, it was only in ads promoting Clinton that the campaign actually discussed policy, and those ads comprised only 30 percent of her overall mix on air.”
Moreover, Clinton’s targeting was only as good as the makeup of the electorate. To wit, “for targeting to be effective, key assumptions about the voter population must be correct, and in this atypical year, it is possible that the assumptions were faulty.”
But even if Clinton’s turnout projections were spot on, buying all the ad slots on television may not have been enough to win her the election. The Wesleyan academics conclude: “[I]t is also possible that because both candidates were so well known among the electorate no amount of advertising, even great imbalances of ads from one side, would have the ability to influence vote choice.”