The REAL House of Cards: Political Campaigns and TV Ads

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The REAL House of Cards: Political Campaigns and TV Ads

May 22, 2014

Nicco Mele

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The most recent season of "House of Cards" was a major event in Washington, D.C., so much so that even Barack Obama's Twitter feed admonished "no spoilers".

My own Facebook feed filled up with people binge-watching the entire show in one sitting. This is to say nothing of a friend's obsession with "Orange is the New Black", another Netflix offering that returns next month. All of these things raise an interesting question: Who watches TV anymore?

All of us are turning away from traditional cable and broadcast television providers, opting instead to view media with mobile phones, tablets, and computers. In the third quarter of 2013 alone, Time Warner Cable lost over 300,000 television subscribers -- a stunning reversal of fortune after decades of growth. And that's only part of a larger trend, as over 5 million cable subscribers have bolted in the past five years.

Services like Netflix now siphon serious traffic away from TV screens. Leading the way among these cord-cutters (or, in a growing number of cases, cord-nevers), the burgeoning millennial demographic is driving the trend away from traditional TV. Media and cable companies have taken notice, as their bottom lines have taken a serious hit in recent years. A key way of understanding the pending Comcast acquisition of Time Warner (and now AT&T's bid to acquire DirecTV) is in the context of rapidly changing media landscape.

While this shift has big implications for how our grandchildren will watch CNN and how shows like "Mad Men" get made, things get even crazier when you consider what this means for how elections work in the United States. For the last six decades, television advertising has been central to our political system. Anyone from a battleground state is perhaps all too familiar with the TV onslaughts which have only grown in recent election cycles. Indeed, political parties bet big on TV ads: in 2012, President Obama's reelection campaign spent over $400 million on TV ads, 85% of which were negative. Mitt Romney's campaign spent even more.

What will media consultants do as people continue cutting the cord, and their eyeballs shift away from TV and towards other screens? Long a mainstay of traditional campaigning, TV ads simply don't have the audience penetration they used to, and figures indicate this reach will further diminish in coming election cycles. The internet isn't as persuasive as television, for a variety of reasons, and the cost structure for success online is entirely different -- spelling trouble for businesses built on large ad buys.

Not that television is going away; prognosticators in the 1950s predicted the demise of radio within a decade as Americans turned to television. And there is no doubt that older populations are still disproportionately tuning into appointment television -- but the trends are clear, and the question is not if, but when will they impact political campaign spending?

In 2008, Barack Obama harnessed the internet to raise money online, challenging the long-established Hillary Clinton and her virtual monopoly of the major donor circuit. Similarly, the political leader who best understands persuasion without television will have a tactical advantage. Pandora recently announced political targeting for their online radio ads -- listen to country music? Odds are you're a Republican, and Pandora knows the zip+4 of your billing address.

But it isn't just about moving advertising dollars from television to the internet. The internet is not as powerful for persuasion because it is so fragmented and diffuse; building any substantial scale is nearly impossible. Moreover, our use of digital technology is much more intimate and intentional; from the perspective of how we use it and relate to it, the internet is much more like the telephone than the television. Consequently, building a successful online machine for persuasion requires new kinds of organizational structures and new kinds of tactical strategies for political campaigns. We've lived through an era of raising money for two years in order to hire a media consultant to cut half a dozen 30 second spots in the last six weeks before the election: where we're headed won't look anything like that.

Smart candidates will build on the benefits of big data, incorporating social media and internet analytics for strategic audience segmentation. The right tools, coupled with an innovative and pragmatic digital outreach strategy, might just give that person the edge he or she needs to reach not only the largest number of voters, but those voters who are most likely to turnout on election day. But the biggest change to come will be in the timing, pace, and staffing of a campaign. Success online requires more staff, earlier in the cycle, as well as maintaining a grueling pace that mixes content creation, content distribution, and more traditional digital-enabled and informed field organizing. It is surely no easy task, and the challenge will be finding out who has the nerve to do it. My advice is – you should turn off the TV and get started.

Photo by Kennan Pepper