Pat Reese, Chief Media Strategist and Ted Haller, Broadcast Specialist

$6 Billion. With a B. That’s how much Kantar Media expects political candidates to spend on advertising leading up to the November election. Group M forecasts $10 billion, which would be a nearly 60-percent increase compared to 2016. Either way, advertisers will be forced to fight harder – and pay more – or get creative if they want to make their voices heard, especially in key battleground states including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Where will candidates spend their money? Everywhere. Television ads, particularly at the local level, and direct mail will likely account for the largest pieces of the pie, followed closely by digital and social media. Kantar expects $4.4 billion to be spent on traditional broadcast – more than twice what the parties spent in 2016 – with a significant portion invested in growing media such as OTT (Over The Top) and CTV (Connected To TV) offerings. Digital and video platforms will garner another $1.6 billion with the majority spent on Facebook.

So what’s an agricultural advertiser to do? You can sit out the next six months, or you can prepare a more-targeted and more-successful battle plan.

Know your enemy. One of the reasons that candidates will spend so much this season on broadcast – aside from the obvious wish to get elected – is that the Federal Communications Commission and a little-known piece of federal legislation called the Communications Act of 1934 give them inherent incentives to advertise. In the 45 days leading up to a primary election, and the 60 days before a general election, federal candidates running for President, Senate, and U.S. House seats are entitled to the lowest rate charged by broadcasters, including discounts and bonus spots. What does this mean for you? Fewer slots, and any that you find will likely cost more, a result of simple supply-and-demand.

In addition, a rule called ‘pre-emption’ gives broadcasters the right to bump any long-term advertising contracts and replace them with political ads. There’s a pecking order that decides which ads get bumped, but it’s at the network’s discretion and doesn’t always seem fair. Rate has a lot to do with it, although the lowest rate doesn’t always get bumped; if you’re a 36-plus-week advertiser, you’re probably safe. The biggest target is a national or regional advertiser who’s not always on and is in the middle of the rate range.

Spoiler alert: everybody pays a different rate for the exact same spot in the exact same time period. That’s just how it works. So if you actually did a better than average job of negotiating your schedule, you could be in more danger of being bumped than someone who paid higher than the fair market average value of the time period.

Timing is another factor. Ads slated during the highest-watched local news time periods, which are typically morning, evening, and late news, are most likely to get bumped. Politicians are also likely to want shows in prime access, such as game shows, which attract an older audience.

Prices typically fall back after the election ends but 2020 will likely buck this trend. Inventory will remain tight as advertisers – many of them shut out by exorbitant costs from June to November – scramble to recover sales in the holiday season, locking up everything they can in the fourth quarter.

Advertising on television. Traditional network television viewership has been trending downward as Millenials and other young adults “cut the cord” in favor of streaming options. In 2017 alone more than 22 million viewers aged 18 and older abandoned cable television entirely. Having said this, candidates know that the populations most likely to vote tend to skew older – and still watch a lot of TV. So you can expect ad rates to increase, even as total viewership drops.

Much of this airtime will be purchased on local newscasts. Kantar expects that candidates will absorb nearly half of available local slots in an attempt to sway voters on a sub-DMA level. But considerable monies will be spent on OTT and CTV, with special emphasis on SlingTV and Hulu.

As few ag companies are large enough to justify running ads on network TV, local television remains the best option. If you’re blessed to be in areas that aren’t considered “must-haves” for either national or state candidates, there should be ample space to continue your campaigns, though you may wind up spending more than you’d normally have to pay. If possible, book your space early; while you still run the risk of getting bumped, you should be able to lock in better pricing than waiting until the fall. If you’re advertising in battleground areas, you may have to move your dollars to OTT or outside of broadcast entirely.

Assuming they start up again this fall, sports could be the best vehicle for ag advertisers. Politicians have historically spent their advertising dollars on shows that skew to a female audience, as well as news programs. Sports programming generally costs more than news to reach 35+ men, but the spots are less likely to get bumped.

Advertising on radio. Candidates are expected to spend a fraction of their war chests on radio as opposed to TV, but it’s still a substantial chunk of money – as much as $142 million, according to Statista. Like TV, radio slots will be offered at a premium in battleground areas, if you can find them at all. And if you’re attempting to reach an older-skewing demo in a metro market you could be in real trouble, especially if the programming draws a female 35- to 45-year-old audience, which politicians have historically used to target the “mom” vote.

Consider sports radio programming if that’s an option, or move your budget to streaming radio, particularly Spotify and Pandora. You’ll find cheaper rates, better targeting options, and since Spotify announced their suspension of political ads, you’ll find more opportunity.

Digital advertising. According to eMarketer estimates, candidates will spend more than $1.3 billion on online ads this season. But unlike traditional broadcast, digital offerings won’t suffer as badly from the perceived lack of space. Americans continue to consume more and more online media. As the number of web sessions rise, so does the inventory.

Equally important, digital media isn’t constrained by the same laws governing traditional broadcast media – it’s a fair fight for space. With all this in mind, moving your advertising budget into online video and mobile offerings makes a lot of sense. But remember, politicians will want to use online media and video too, many as their primary target, so make sure to secure your space early, especially video.

Advertising with Social Media. President Obama’s campaign used social media effectively; President Trump used it almost exclusively. And many media advisors are convinced that social channels directly affected the outcomes of 2018’s mid-term elections. So it’s likely you’ll face more competition and higher costs-per-action (CPA) than you’ve had in the past.

Worse yet, the channels are caught behind a rock and a hard spot as they try to manage or create policies that police “fake news,” unsubstantiated or false claims, or misleading ads. Facebook announced that it would not limit the ways political ads are targeted at specific groups; Google said it will, but won’t ban the ads completely; Twitter is refusing all political ads. While the channels dither, survey after survey shows that the public’s trust of paid ads on social media continues to deteriorate, and this distrust will likely reach a crescendo as the election nears.

Some potential strategies for social include:

  • Stay the course. If you have solid relationships established with your key customers and related audiences there’s no reason to pull back. Continue a measured and planned cadence, paring back if costs rise.
  • Don’t jump into the fray. It’s tempting to weigh in on political issues or piggyback on local issues, since that’s what many on social channels will be discussing. But it’s a very, very dangerous and polarizing strategy. Yes, there are examples from previous campaigns where companies were successful. For example, Bisquick’s “Pancakes vs. Waffles” election, with the two breakfast candidates throwing shade at each other, and Kayaks #MoveToCanada campaign, which took advantage of the common threat from deeply-rooted voters to leave the country should their preferred candidate lose by offering gift cards to put toward a flight north. Both of these were well planned and well executed and both generated considerable publicity. But both were humorous and non-partisan.

In short, navigating through the upcoming election will take more time and more planning in order to be effective and with manageable costs. But it’s not impossible. Should you need any short-term help creating a robust, multi-media plan, feel free to contact any of us for a consultation.