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Online Challenges for 2008, Part 1: Will TiVo Kill the Political Ad?

BY Colin Delany | Wednesday, September 5 2007

This is the introduction and the first in a series of articles about the challenges facing campaigns at all levels in 2008 and beyond. Originally posted on e.politics.

Introduction

Eight months down; fourteen to go: since the online component of campaign 2008 kicked off in January, we've seen Hillary as Big Brother, Ron Paul as favorite son, Mike Gravel as crazy uncle, Obama drawing admiring eyes, a talking snowman drawing ire, McCain for gay marriage, Romney for abortion, Giuliani for prom queen and every candidate for as much online sugar as he or she can raise.

What have we really learned, though, about the challenges of political communications in a networked world? The era of broadcast communications is fast fading, and a world of niches and low barriers lies ahead. At the moment, the presidential campaigns are feeling their way across the same foggy ground as every other online communicator. Where have they stumbled? What obstacles and opportunities lie ahead? What will it take at all levels of politics to win in 2008 and beyond? This series of articles will look at these questions, using our experience of the last 8 months (and a dozen or so years) of online politics as a guide.

Part 1: Will TiVo Kill the Political Ad?

Let's start with something simple, like a piece of technology that may turn out to be a political consultant's worst enemy: the digital video recorder. TiVos will matter to political campaigns because television matters: candidates and their media consultants spend the vast majority of their money on television ads, and digital video recorders are going to let the targets of those ads dodge every single one of them if they want to. DVRs also illustrate a larger theme of this series: technology gives voters power at other times than just election day.

Twenty Percent and Growing

Digital video recorders have spread relatively quickly for a new piece of technology — since 2003, they've gone from only 2% of American households to 20%, in part because cable providers are pushing them heavily to customers. One of the main benefits to having a DVR is dodging commercials — some 84% of DVR owners consider ad-skipping to be a "very important" reason to own one. TiVos give consumers the power to determine which messages they receive and which ones they ignore.

Product marketers have responded to the challenge in several ways, for instance by leaving the product's logo or marketing message on screen throughout the commercial so that it's visible during a fast-forward. Sponsorship messages can also be woven into site features or segments (Bud Light Player of the Game!). Ultimately, though, quality content offers the most promise — advertisers are learning to create commercials that are good enough that people WANT to watch them, or at least are willing to tolerate them.

Political Ads in Particular Danger

TiVo owners so far haven't killed the traditional 15- or 30-second television spot, but DVRs in significant numbers also haven't encountered the kind of blizzard of political commercials that residents of battleground states have learned to expect in a presidential election year. In 2004, some media markets were so over-saturated with political ads for candidates at all levels that stations were running out of advertising space — you couldn't have bought an ad if you wanted to.

And, let's face it, most political ads suck: the positive ones are pastiches of reassuring music, heroic poses and lots and lots of flags, while the negative ones are dark and nasty and designed to evoke the grimmest of feelings toward the hated foe. After a few days or weeks of seeing these suckers in non-stop rotation, I have a funny feeling that a lot of voters are going to be recording their favorite shows at a record pace (hint: start watching a few minutes late and you can blast past the ads and still finish a show at the normal time). According to an MSHC Partners study and anecodotal evidence, TiVos are already cutting into the effectiveness of political ads, and owning a DVR may end up being a prerequisite for sanity during the general election. Here's a question for '08: how many TiVos will the campaigns cause people to buy?

DVRs aren't the only threat to the political ad: cable-driven market fragmentation has split audiences into segments and cut into the mass effect of local ad buys on network stations, and DirecTV and the Dish Network eliminate local advertising entirely and threaten to make it particularly hard to reach rural audiences. But because they're so common and so effective at blocking commercials, DVRs really bring out the limits of the traditional you-must-watch-our-ad approach to spreading a political message over television.

Please Watch Our Ad!

So, how do campaigns jump this new hurdle? First, they'll need to create good content — it's time for those media consultants to start earning their keep, a topic to which we shall return repeatedly in this series. If anyone is going to watch political ads, they're going to have to become as effective as higher-end product commercials. Good visuals, good sound, good message, good PUNCH — for ideas, watch the commercials on those cable channels or individual shows aimed at media-savvy audiences (Comedy Central, VH1, MTV, etc.).

Judging from the quality of the average campaign ad, though, many media firms seem to think of the creative content as an afterthought — MUCH more money seems to go into buying the time than into creating the actual advertisement. Of course, often that's a function of the fact that a political ad may have to go live within days (or hours!), but the time constraint can't be an excuse for shoddy content — at least, if you want that time you bought to actually matter (note: better store up a lot of footage in advance for rapid-response). As more and more household television viewing is filtered through DVRs, candidates at ALL levels are going to have to either up their game or find another field on which to compete.

Which brings up the next question: what else can campaigns do besides pour money into the endless maw of television? If your audience is no longer glued to local network broadcasts, eyes firmly on your ads for lack of other options, how do you use scarce resources to first find them and then target them with the appropriate messages? That, my friends, will be the subject of the rest of this series.

Next: Where IS Everybody?

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