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Political Campaign Get Savvy At Targeting Cord-Cutters

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

All these candidates running for seats means most people are being subjected to a glut of political ads on TV. And if you think streaming services will help you escape the barrage of ads, you may be out of luck. KCUR'S Samuel King reports that political campaigns have gotten way more savvy at targeting cord-cutters.

SAMUEL KING, BYLINE: The same technology that allows you to watch your favorite team or show from anywhere also allows political groups on both sides to find you. Here in Kansas City, where there are plenty of competitive races on both sides of the border between Kansas and Missouri, the race to reach streaming TV viewers is particularly intense.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #1: McCaskill's money machine...

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #2: The golden boy, Josh Hawley, is lying to us again.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #3: Incredibly wrong for Kansas.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #4: Sharice Davids is a Pelosi liberal.

KING: The targeting technology solves a problem that has bedeviled campaigns since the dawn of the broadcast age, how to get the best bang for their buck. In markets that cross state lines, advertising on broadcast TV means campaigns have to spend millions of dollars and still end up reaching hundreds of thousands of people who can't vote for them. Christopher Massicotte is a partner at DSPolitical, a Washington, D.C., firm that works with Democrats.

CHRISTOPHER MASSICOTTE: So they know that when they're advertising in these streaming services and online that, you know, nearly 100 percent of their dollars are going to viewers that can actually vote for them.

KING: Massicotte says some streaming services, like Hulu or YouTube, only allow campaigns to target viewers by ZIP code. But others allow ad buyers to go a step further by allowing them to take voter data and match that to the emails and ZIP codes users provided to sign up for the service. That even works for states where voters don't register by party, like Missouri.

MICHAEL FRANZ: They get really granular and try to look at patterns to score somebody on what their propensity to vote for a Democrat or their propensity to vote for a Republican would be.

KING: Mike Franz is a professor at Bowdoin College in Maine and is the director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks and codes political ads in more than 200 markets across the country. He says the ads may unnerve some people.

FRANZ: For campaigns, this is a great opportunity to reach particular voters. It's a little strange from a voter's perspective because they're being sort of targeted. And also, that means they're being somewhat - you know, so to speak - watched.

KING: While television is still where campaigns spend much of their money, digital is coming on strong. The research firm Borrell Associates estimates $1.8 billion will be spent on digital political advertising this year. One of the company's vice presidents, Kip Cassino, says campaigns have taken a page from the corporate world.

KIP CASSINO: People started saying - gee, if we can do this with lawn mowers and automobiles, why can't we do it with politicians? And that is exactly what's happened.

KING: Chris Massicotte says - in the end, the best way to get a political message out is through video, no matter the medium.

MASSICOTTE: A client sent an email to me that was from somebody they must've been advertising to. And they were watching a baseball game on mlb.com. And they said - really, you had to politicize my baseball? And you know, (laughter) - I'm like, hey, playoffs are in October. Of course we did.

KING: And this type of targeting may be here to stay. Cassino says to expect a lot more political advertising on your streaming service in 2020.

For NPR News, I'm Samuel King in Kansas City.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUANITO B'S "EL TAXI (INSTRUMENTAL MIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.