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Savvy Political Campaigns In Kansas, Missouri Target Cord-Cutters With Ads

Erica Hunzinger
KCUR 89.3
Ads from Senate Leadership Fund and Emily's List target congressional candidates on streaming sites.

The same technology that allows you to stream your favorite team or show from anywhere also allows political groups from either side of the aisle to find you and subject you to a glut of political ads for congressional races in Kansas, Missouri and all over the country.

Television is still the biggest force in political advertising, with research firm Borrell Associates estimating $8.9 billion will spent on this year’s midterms. That’s a record for a non-presidential election. Digital advertising will see $1.8 billion of that money — also a record.

“A client sent an email to me that was from somebody they must've been advertising to and they were watching a baseball game on MLB.com and they said, ‘Really, you had to politicize my baseball?'” said Chris Massicotte, a partner at DSPolitical, a Washington, D.C., firm that works with Democrats and progressives on political marketing. “I’m like, ‘Hey, playoff baseball in October? Of course we did.’”

Some streaming services like Hulu or YouTube only allow campaigns to target viewers by zip code, Massicotte said, but others allow ad buyers to go a step further, taking voter data. 

“ … (Y)ou put in your email address and zip code and that's all we need,” he said, noting it even works in states like Missouri where voters do not register by party.

The targeting is especially attractive to candidates in media markets like Kansas City, which cross state lines. Campaigns and outside political groups can spend millions of dollars on television or radio advertising, only to reach thousands of people who can’t vote for them.

“They're essentially wasting their advertising dollars, and further-down-ballot candidates can't afford to waste that kind of money because they have limited resources,” Massicotte said.

"If it turns out that this year you don't get real upset with the number of ads they're putting up there, then in 2020 you can look for an awful lot more."

And as more ad dollars migrate to the digital space, campaigns have taken a page from the corporate world when it comes to using technology to target voters, according to Kip Cassino, vice president of research for the Virginia-based Borrell Associates.

“People started saying, ‘Gee, if we can do this with lawnmowers and automobiles, why can't we do it with politicians?'" Cassino said. "That’s exactly what happened."

If you think this will be limited to the 2018 midterms, think again, Cassino said, noting that campaigns are experimenting with how many ads people can tolerate on their streaming devices.

“And if it turns out that this year you don't get real upset with the number of ads they're putting up there, then in 2020 you can look for an awful lot more,” he said.

The targeting trends shows no sign of slowing down, Wesleyan Media Project Director Mike Franz said.

“For campaigns, it’s a great opportunity to reach particular voters,” said Franz, who is also a professor at Bowdoin College in Maine. “It's a little strange (from the) voter's perspective because they're being sort of targeted and also that means they're being, so to speak, watched. Whatever they like or whatever they do online seeds into the models that campaigns are using to find them.

“And that might be a little upsetting for voters. And I think that's a reasonable reaction,” he said.

In the end, Massicotte said, the best way to way to get a political message out is through video, no matter the medium. So as you stream playoff baseball or college football the next few weeks, expect the barrage of ads to continue.

Samuel King is the Missouri government and politics reporter at KCUR 89.3. Follow him on Twitter: @SamuelKingNews

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