How the COVID-19 Pandemic Might Affect Spending on 2020 Political OOH Advertising
Election years always bring a surge of orders for yard signs, direct mail, door hangers, event graphics, bumper stickers, and promotional products. The weeks before the spring primaries and during the fall campaign are particularly busy, as campaign staffers raise awareness of candidates and ballot initiatives for national, state, and local elections.
Before the COVID-19 shutdown, companies that produce OOH advertising graphics were also hoping to attract a surge of new business from political campaigns. That still appears likely, but the placements and formats for political OOH advertising may shift. A lot depends on when (or if) targeted voters resume daily commutes, air travel, and attendance at concerts, conventions, and sporting events.
The Impact of COVID-19
After the Super Tuesday primary on March 3, 2020, it was shaping up to be a record-setting year for spending on political ads. Billionaire-candidates Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer had already dropped more than $850 million on political advertising. In fact, in late February, Kantar’s Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG) raised their estimate for 2020 political advertising expenditures from $6 billion to $6.5 billion.
By mid-March, everything changed. In-person gatherings (including campaign events) were cancelled. And the stay-at-home mandates altered all segments of the U.S. economy, including OOH advertising, political campaigns, media consumption, and consumer/voter behavior.
Most primaries scheduled after March 3 were postponed, and the DNC National Convention was pushed back from July 13-16, to August 17-20. Door-to-door campaigning was banned, fundraising events were held online, and campaigners could no longer gather petition signatures for proposed ballot-initiatives in person.
Traditional forms of OOH advertising suffered as commuters, sports fans, concertgoers, and conference attendees stayed at home — away from the high-traffic highways, office buildings, airports, transit centers, shopping districts, convention centers, and stadiums where OOH audiences had been growing.
Despite these challenges and ongoing uncertainty about when U.S. business will return to “normal,” Steve Passwaiter remains cautiously optimistic that political ad spending will reach current forecasts. Passwaiter is general manager of the Kantar GMAG that published the white paper, “Political Advertising Trends: What to Expect in 2020.”
Here are a few points to consider if your print business wants to capitalize on Post-COVID-19 campaign spending.
- The dollars available for political advertising depends on how much money each campaign raises. The Kantar report notes that campaigns typically spend about 60% of the total money raised on paid advertising channels such as broadcast TV, cable TV, radio, and digital marketing. The other 40% goes to things such a direct mail, polls, planes, offices, events, PR, and salaries.
- Fundraising totals typically reflect voter enthusiasm for (or against) a specific candidate and the number of competitive races in states and districts throughout the U.S.
- Most campaign staffers reflexively gravitate toward TV and digital marketing. According to Ken Klein, EVP of Government Affairs for OAAA, placing ads on TV can be quick and profitable, and it is the way things have always been done. Political ad buyers also gravitate toward Facebook and Google ads because other campaigns are using them.
- Postponing the DNC convention will compresses the ad-buying schedule by four weeks. In a typical presidential election year, a lot of ad money is spent during the weeks following mid-summer conventions to maintain the candidate’s momentum from convention week.
- As the economy recovers from COVID-19, campaign planners may find space on local TV stations difficult to book this fall. Because of pent-up demand for brand advertising, Passwaiter believes, “the potential exists for a strong demand for TV ads in September and October.” For example, auto company ads may come flooding back to promote new models to the millions of consumers whose leases expired this summer.
The Convergence of Political Platforms
Like all other forms of advertising, political advertising is in a state of transition. The digital natives who now control most media budgets for political advertising understand they have many more options than placing ads on local TV, cable TV, radio, and social media.
For example, political consultant Ondine Fortune founded Fortune Media to help campaigns plan, execute, and monitor multi-channel campaigns that may include different forms of digital and social media, broadcast and cable TV, print, static and digital OOH advertising, as well as video distribution over the Internet (OTT) or video-on-demand (VOD) services. Fortune also helps with data mining, ZIP code mapping, and multi-lingual media strategy and buying.
Passwaiter believes campaign teams, “are interested in hearing more about various options and seeing if there are opportunities to do a better job of reaching the people they need to reach.”
While Kantar focuses primarily on tracking TV, radio, and digital marketing spending, Passwaiter says the OOH advertising industry sees great opportunity in political advertising in 2020. Since November 2019, OOH media companies have actively promoted how digital assets can be repurposed on digital sign networks, and how campaign messages can be targeted to hyper-local audiences.
In a February op-ed on the MediaPost platform for media, marketing, and advertising professionals, Ken Klein called attention to Mike Bloomberg’s creative use of out-of-home media to complement his unprecedented spending on TV and digital ads. Along with billboards in Super Tuesday primary states, Bloomberg posted slams at Donald Trump on billboards near where Trump rallies were being held. Klein also noted that clever OOH strategies can help campaigns earn additional social media or broadcast news coverage. For example, 2016 presidential candidate Mitt Romney earned local news coverage by placing billboards addressed to President Obama along presidential motorcade routes.
In the fall of 2019, the Geopath OOH audience measurement company released data about some of the audiences that political campaigns are striving to reach. For example, their data showed that people who make political contributions are 10% more likely than the general public to pay attention to OOH advertising, and 26% more likely to say they pay attention to billboards than the average person. Registered voters are 7% more likely than the total population to say they have noticed a mobile billboard or OOH display on a truck or van over the last 30 days. Conservative leaning voters are 13% less likely to have used a social network in the last 30 days than the rest of the population, and 16% less likely to have watched a video online.
Using OOH to Reach the Right Demographic
OOH advertising can be used to reach either wide swaths of voters, or specific demographic groups in key battleground states. Using geolocation and mobile data, campaigns can see exactly when, where, and how often consumers are exposed to different types of OOH ads, and measure how well creative is performing at specific locations and at different times of day.
Fliphound.com, an online public digital billboard platform, provides advertisers access to thousands of digital billboards in 47 states. They want candidates and campaign teams to know that buying billboard space doesn’t have to be a long, complicated process. On the company’s website, they are educating social media and digital marketing professionals about the ability create, publish, and manage content on digital billboards.
“Digital billboards allow candidates — and their campaign teams — to target voters with relevant, timely messages and react promptly to changes in topics and current events,” explains Doug Robertson, CEO at Fliphound. “Fliphound allows campaign professionals to work with small and large budgets to reach key voter blocs, target key congressional districts, constituents, or voters.”
OOH can go wherever the targeted voters happen to be. In November, the multi-tech ad platform Wrapify noted that, “2020 candidates are searching for strategic outlets beyond traditional channels to reach constituents in a more differentiated, personal, and trackable way.”
For a candidate in the New Hampshire primary, Wrapify used graphic-wrapped cars that triggered digital retargeting online to carry the candidate’s messaging throughout the state. The vehicles were driven by gig-economy workers who wanted to earn extra money by allowing their vehicles to be wrapped.
Billups is the largest independent, privately held advertising technology company in the U.S. specializing in OOH. They promote their company as “an out-of-home marketplace translating the physical world into data-driven solutions.”
In the midst of the COVID-19 disruption, Billups published data on the COVID-19 impact on OOH exposure. While commuter traffic and visits to airports, restaurants, theaters, and malls fell, visitation increased to essential businesses such as grocery stores. So, Billups encouraged advertisers to connect with local consumers in suburbs and neighborhoods via empathetic and responsible messaging.
Their research data showed that while commuter traffic was down as much as 80% on some highways, smaller format OOH ads such as bulletins, bus shelters, and bus benches were garnering higher levels of exposure as people drove to nearby grocery stores or takeout restaurants.
The report further showed how OOH advertisers could use ads on Amazon delivery boxes, pizza boxes, delivery package inserts, or in the parking lots of essential businesses to continue to deliver brand messages to home-bound consumers.
As the economy reopens and begins to rebound, Billups will continue to monitor shifts in hyperlocal OOH exposure and help clients find creative, effective ways to reach targeted audiences.
Jeff Jan, the head of growth at Billups, believes, “OOH opportunities are more important than ever to reach voters in and outside their homes. The most effective OOH activations focus on three key ingredients: hero image, prominent logo, and strong call-to-action. When amplified by height and width (14 ft. High and 48 in. Wide), a standard billboard can stand tall for any political message. Additionally, OOH advertising offers diverse media formats for unmissable encounters such as transit media (bus sides, shelters, and benches), digital posters, and mobile billboards.”
He believes that in our current political climate, hyperlocal OOH opportunities will be more important than ever to reach voters: “OOH advertising excels at speaking to directly to audiences in familiar, relatable ways.” Digital or static billboards can provide helpful, directional reminders for the advertiser’s physical location (e.g. campaign office address), or reinforce messages that speak directly to local neighborhoods with more tact and frequency.
Campaign dollars are more likely to come from Super PACs than from small donors and grassroots organizations. COVID-19 disruptions may limit the ability for state groups to place new initiatives on the November ballots or raise funds from smaller donors for challengers to incumbent officials. But Passwaiter says well-funded Super PACs will be raring to go.
Despite all the upheavals caused by the COVID-19 shutdowns, Passwaiter believes spending on political advertising will be healthy in 2020. “There are a lot of unknowns. But the one thing we do know is that the only advertising money that must be spent this year is political money, because we have the ultimate one-day sale coming up on Election Day, November 3.”