Microtargeting: why you may see different campaign ads than your neighbor

 (Electronic image via Youtube ad)

(Electronic image via Youtube ad)

Despite the massive amount of money floating around in politics this time of year, campaigns are surprisingly tight-fisted with their cash.

“You don’t want to waste your dollars communicating with people who aren’t going to vote, or who aren’t going to vote for you,” said Mark Nevins with The Dover Group, a Democratic communications firm.

To do this, campaigns try to predict who will respond favorably to messaging, and who won’t. In the past, these calculations were made with the help of canvassers, pollsters and old fashioned gut instinct. Nevins says today it’s all about using big data to microtarget voters, a strategy successfully employed by Obama’s re-election team.

“Every campaign starts off saying, ‘We want to do what Obama did in 2012.’ But not every campaign has the resources to do what the Obama campaign did,” said Nevins.

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By combining information culled from social media posts, web site use, and TV viewing habits, and matching all that up with publicly available voter files, the Obama team took microtargeting to a whole new level, online, on TV, and in its get-out-the-vote efforts.

One famous example: using its software, they figured out that in the swing state of Ohio, there were an outsized share of undecided and “persuadable” voters tuning in everyday to “Judge Joe Brown,” an afternoon courtroom show.

It is a lot cheaper to buy ad time during Judge Joe Brown than during the nightly news, and so the Obama campaign was able to get its message to the voters it wanted to reach, while spending less than the rival Romney campaign.

These same techniques are now trickling down to the 2014 state and local races. Take the gubernatorial contest in Pennsylvania, where Republican incumbent Tom Corbett is trailing Democrat Tom Wolf.

This Corbett campaign ad titled “Say What” sarcastically jabs at his rival’s income tax plans. Corbett campaign manager Mike Barley says they are running the spot heavily on TV, but also targeting it online to certain groups.

“So what we are able to do is, we are able to look through to voters who have expressed that [taxes] are their number one issue,” said Barley.

If you aren’t on list, you could visit the same website or social media platform, but see a different ad.

Corporations have long been using these same strategies. It’s not uncommon for companies to allocate as much as 30 percent of their advertising budgets to online ads. Campaigns are slowly approaching those same levels, hammering their messages over and over again.

“Oh gosh, I didn’t look, but it is millions per day. We are serving millions of impressions a day,” said Chris Massicotte with DS Political, a Washington D.C. firm that helps place online ads.

He says part of the reason for moving online and away from TV is that campaigns need to chase younger voters who don’t have the same viewing habits that their parents and grandparents do.

“So we can actually find those folks that watch less than ten hours of live TV a week, and then load up our advertising buy on them to make sure that they are getting the messages,” said Massicotte.

With everyone getting different messages online, there’s concern that campaigns and outside groups could also finely target misinformation.

“You don’t want people to be deceived and then cast a vote that they would cast differently had they had full information,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. She argues that microtargeting makes it harder for journalists, academics and the opposition to truth squad ads.

“Unless we are the object of the targeting, we are not likely to find them,” she said

Because it is so hard to know which ads are being viewed and where, voters experience them almost in isolation. The campaigns no longer have to try to appeal to the masses. With microtargeting, it’s an audience of one: you.

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