Aug 29 2022
Ben Larrison

Ask an Expert: Advertising and the 2022 US Midterm Elections


The 2022 US midterm elections are rapidly approaching, and political advertisers are looking for any edge they can get to boost their campaigns. 

To get all the latest on the factors, trends, and projections shaping the political ad world, we spoke with political advertising expert Grace Briscoe, Basis Technologies’ SVP of Client Development.

Basis Technologies: It's grown pretty clear that 2022 is ramping up to be a major year in terms of ad spend‚—even for a midterm. What are some of the mitigating factors that digital advertisers should be aware when it comes to political ad buys in this year’s environment?

Grace Briscoe: It is absolutely forecast to be—and, so far, shaping up to be—a record-breaking year for spending. We're looking at political ad spends well ahead of what was spent in 2020, so we're looking at the first time where midterm spend is pacing to exceed a presidential year. We have been seeing spends just going up and up, so digital is for sure going to be breaking records.

In terms of big factors, the biggest is connected TV. There’s a ton of excitement around channel, and we’re seeing a significant chunk of dollars are shifting from traditional television into connected TV. Some forecasts I've seen show connected TV spends are likely to eclipse cable TV spends this year, which is wild—if you'd asked about this two years ago, nobody would have said it was likely to happen this fast. But I think we saw the pandemic accelerate some of that with media consumption habits, and so we're advising clients to be aware of competitiveness around video and especially connected TV.

As we get into October, you should expect to see some inventory tightness—especially in certain really competitive states—and clients are going to need to bid high and access a wide breadth of inventory sources to make sure they're able to get the kind of reach and scale they want in the weeks just before the election. My guess is that, because of auction dynamics, prices are going to go up more dramatically than in previous election cycles, and it’s going to be important for buyers to be thoughtful about bidding strategies to achieve their objectives.

BT: What should media buying professionals be aware of now to best prepare for that highly competitive environment? And, if the cost of CTV does indeed skyrocket, what are some viable alternatives that advertisers should consider if they’re looking to get the biggest bang for their buck?

GB: If you're not a political advertiser and you don't have to be present in some of those really competitive election states—or if it's not vital that you're advertising on connected TV in the last weeks of October and the first week of November—then you might want to sit things out and take a breather during that time. In other words, if it's not essential to your marketing that you have a presence on that channel, then it may be OK that you lose some bids and go a little quieter during that stretch. The volume may drop off on your connected TV for a couple of weeks, but then it's going to bounce right back, so you don't necessarily need to double your bids and spend a whole lot of money that isn't entirely essential. By being aware of this going into the fall, I think it’ll give some advertisers the chance to think through their approach and decide if they're OK with their volume dropping off in October without then overreacting.

For political advertisers, we're working with clients on making sure they've got access to a breadth of inventory sources, including both private marketplaces and open exchange, tapping into as many things as we can so that we can scale campaigns across different channels and platforms and devices. I do think running cross-platform OTT rather than focusing exclusively on connected TV devices—especially if it's not a must—will greatly help mitigate the pressure of increased competition and create opportunity to scale efficiently.

For clients that really want the most premium inventory and really want that very heavy, high frequency presence in October, we’re working with premium streaming providers and networks to make sure they’re reserving some inventory for those crucial weeks where it might otherwise be a little tougher to get really high volume. That can be a great complement to programmatic for certain campaigns.

BT: So CTV is clearly going to be the “it” channel during the 2022 campaign season. What are some other trends that you’re anticipating? Are there specific channels beyond CTV that are likely to be hotter than others?

GB: I think we are starting to see a little bit more adoption of streaming audio, though it is still fairly small. In 2020, I’d predicted “This is going to be the year where political clients like the availability of programmatic streaming audio, and it’s going to drive a lot of adoption!” But then only a fraction of a percent of ad spend went to programmatic audio—practically nil. So, I was wildly wrong then, but we are starting to see a little movement there now. It is ticking up—still only a single-digit percent of spend—but that’s a big increase from nothing!

But big-picture, I think we’re seeing clients interested in connected TV, then all other video, then display, and then pretty much everything else. Social is also in there, and search is always a must-have, but it's also always in the single digits of ad budgets.

BT: It's interesting that you bring up social. Obviously, the way that social has changed—not just from 2016 to today, but from 2020 to today—is pretty drastic. What should advertisers know about how political advertising on social has changed, and what can they do to ensure not just an effective presence on those platforms, but a safe presence on those platform (at least to the best of their abilities)? 

GB: Outside of fundraising, where social is still very powerful, the role that social plays in political campaigns and in their media plans has definitely diminished. That’s at least in part because of all restrictions and hoops those platforms make political advertisers jump through. There are all these extra steps and extra headaches and “blackout periods,” and these things often are announced at the last minute with little-to-no warning. It's created a lot of uncertainty—and maybe even a lack of trust as well—between the advertisers and the platforms.

But at the same time, people use social—they're important channels, and campaigns want to reach voters there. Still, after 2020, clients really don’t feel like they can be overly reliant on any one platform because they could pull the plug on you tomorrow and say, “We're shutting down all political ads,” so political advertisers are really thinking about diversifying their strategy on social—even if, at this point, advertisers are kind of down to just Facebook and Snap. 

BT: Have there been any states or any districts that have passed any legislation as it pertains to social media with advertising?

GB: Neither Facebook nor Google will take any ads for local or state elections in Washington state, and Google also doesn't take state, local or ballot measure ads in Maryland, Nevada, or New Jersey, because those states passed various transparency regulations. The Washington State Attorney General even sued Facebook and Google over political ads. 

So yes, a handful of those state and local regulations emerged after 2016, with most of them coming in kind of a wave around 2018-2019. They add a new challenge for our clients who operate in those states or across multiple states, who need to make sure they're working with platforms that are able to ensure they are following all the rules.

BT: If you are working on a state or local election campaign, what capabilities do you really need to tap into to make the most of your spend—especially given that your budgets are likely much smaller than some of the bigger campaigns that are gobbling up high-priced inventory that you can't afford?

GB: Basis recently added state legislative district targeting, which is unique to our platform, and that's been really well received and has helped clients that need to make the most of those smaller budgets by letting them focus in on specific geographies. If you’re really strapped for cash, you can also try to minimize any extra layers of targeting that you're adding in, because those can both add to the expense and narrow the pool of potential voters you're talking to. So, say, if you're running for governor in Texas, then sure—micro-target your messaging to all sorts of different voter segments! But if you're running for a seat in Texas State House District 47, then don't over-target yourself into irrelevance and miss out on speaking to the voters you need to turn out.

BT: OK, last question! If you are a political marketer who’s looking for an adtech or media services partner in the coming midterm elections, what should you be looking out for?

GB: More than anything, I think it’s important to seek out someone who is experienced in the political advertising space and that has a dedicated, permanent political team. We’ve seen a lot of adtech companies that, for instance, will just hire a few DC-based salespeople during an election year, only to lay them off the week after the election and pay no attention to the whole political advertising world (and its particular needs) for another two years, when they start the whole cycle up again. And in a world where there are constant shifts of everything from redistricting to platform-based restrictions (or outright bans) on political ads, you need to make sure you don’t just have a vendor, but a trusted partner that you can lean on throughout the rigors of a campaign cycle.

And not to pat ourselves on the back too much, but while some DSPs were restricting political targeting (or eliminating political advertising altogether), Basis has actually added features and capabilities specifically for political advertisers just this year. We have a full-time Candidates and Causes staff of more than 40 experienced pros who understand the demands of an election cycle. We’ve been supporting political clients for over 15 years, so we’re able to provide the kind of relationships that are built on trust. And what do political advertisers want more than one less thing to worry about? 

BT: Thanks so much, Grace!

GB: Anytime!


Looking for more tips as the 2022 political advertising season heads into the homestretch? Check out our blog post on the challenges and opportunities around targeted political advertising in 2022. Or, if you’re interested in learning how you can best capitalize on all this information, reach out to our award-winning Candidates and Causes team here are Basis Technologies to see how you can make the most of your ad spend. Wishing you successful campaigns this fall—whether political or not!