Television Gets Personal Just In Time For Election Season



If you’ve browsed the Internet lately (which I assume you have if you’re reading this), you have probably realized that the ads that blink on the sides of the content you are trying to read or watch are getting a lot more personal. Everyday Internet advertising is starting to feel more and more like that infamous scene from Minority Report.

Advertisers have always sought their target audience. And they have chased them to whatever glowing screen their audience has spent the most time starting at. Advertisers have leaped from radio (once upon a time) to television, and, more recently, to websites and mobile apps.

Over the last few years, the tools for finding target audiences online have advanced dramatically. With the help of the major online search engines, media companies, and social networks, advertisers have been able to reach more and more specific audiences (now able to be targeted based on the vast amount of information we share online each day).

Just in case you were still suffering from the delusion that Facebook was free, keep in mind that just because you don’t pay money for a service, that doesn’t mean you don’t pay for it. Our desire to access social networks and content online for free has made us more than willing to make more information about ourselves available to advertisers. In return, advertisers pay a premium because they are able to reach a more target relevant audience than ever before.

In the time that all these changes have happened, television advertising has remained more general. Sure, there are shows and even whole channels that have been geared to one specific target audience or another, but, in general, TV ads haven’t been able to become as personalized as those online. In other words, there’s no TV equivalent of the Amazon banner ad that shows you the products you have recently viewed on the retailer’s website while you are reading the Washington Post (now coincidently also owned by Jeff Bezos).

But now, television providers are starting to roll out their answer to our more personalized web advertisements—just in time for one of the busiest times for television advertising: the months leading up to Election Day.

Still a month out from Election Day, candidates, parties, and outside groups have spent an estimated 282.7 million dollars on television ads so far this year. For politicians who so often need multiple messages to make their candidacy resonate with different blocks of voters, personalization is key. For instance, the message you put out to your base to get them to the polls on Election Day is often very different from the message you need to send to more moderate Independents and swing voters. In past elections, this has been tricky given that you couldn’t make sure one TV ad was only seen by Independents and your base only saw a separate one.

But now, Direct TV and Dish Network have developed a way to deliver this level of customization to their television customers just in time for election season. And they’ve accomplished this by teaming up with an unlikely ally—their customers’ DVRs. Ironically, the device that was supposed to make it easier to record shows and skip commercials might now be the key to more personalized ads.

The technology, known as “addressable advertising,” downloads a set of advertisements to a customer’s DVR and shows them a specific ad based on data from the television companies’ technological partners on the right and left, according to a report from Nancy Scola at the Washington Post. I should note that while reading the article I was retargeted by no less than 3 online retailers I have visited in the last month. So, in case our nation’s politicians had been struggling to talk out of both sides of their mouth, now there’s a technological solution to help do it more effectively.

With no less than 280 million dollars being spent on political television ads this election year, TV obviously still has a crucial role in the American political process. Political TV ads have come along way since they were first broadcast into American homes in 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower was facing Adlai Stevenson.

While it has been more than 60 years since the catchy “Ike for President” spot ran, TV is still crucial to American politics and television providers are looking for ways to innovate as they face ever increasing competition for political advertisements from online companies capable of more precise targeting. While there will certainly be those outraged by the change, the fact is that television is just catching up to the sort of targeting routinely conducted by the websites we use everyday (Google, Amazon, Facebook, and so many more).

It’s still too early to tell what kind of impact these more targeted ads (both on TV and online) will have on our national political discourse, but in the next few years as targeting becomes more and common we will see potentially big changes in the way we learn about and ultimately decide to vote for candidates.


About John Wilson

John Wilson is an analytical communications professional, with a passion for sifting through data for compelling stories and insights. John started his career on Capitol Hill and chased his love of data and communications out of politics and into opinion research and public relations. John graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the George Washington University where he studied political science and statistics. Beyond work, John loves the mountains and can be found skiing or hiking in both the Sierras and the Rockies.
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