Targeted Political Ads are Here, but will Voters Bite?

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Data Privacy
Marketing
As presidential candidates embrace data-driven digital marketing campaigns, the question of whether voters will respond to micro-targeting becomes more relevant than ever.

Are targeted political ads creepy? Advertising agencies and political campaigns are equipped with an ever-growing trove of data that allows them to send voters highly targeted messages. As presidential candidates embrace data-driven digital marketing campaigns, the question of whether voters will respond to micro-targeting becomes more relevant than ever.
Consumers are already accustomed to receiving targeted ads from retailers, and are unlikely to be surprised by similarly personalized political ads, says Robb Hecht, an adjunct professor of marketing at Baruch College. "What consumers experience while shopping online [and receiving] passively served up ads on Facebook or on Amazon makes them comfortable with how politicians are now reaching them," Hecht maintains.

On the contrary, consumers are "resigned to being tracked online" and would prefer not to share their data with marketers, argues Joseph Turow, a professor at University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication. "I don't think there'll be a huge uproar because most people don't even know it [data collection] is going on," Turow says. "But when you speak to people about these practices, they're troubled by them."

In 2012, Turow led a study on consumers' perceptions of tailored political advertising. From a survey of approximately 1,500 adults, 64 percent of adults said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate they knew was tailoring ads based on personal information, and 77 percent of voters said that if they knew a website was giving data to political advertisers, they'd stop visiting the site.

While polls are often unreliable indicators of voter behavior, the underlying message is that people don't see much value in targeted political advertising. Even advertisers admit they must provide better ads. In 2015, the Interactive Advertising Bureau said the digital publishing industry has cared too much about revenues at the cost of user experience. "We messed up," said Scott Cunningham, senior vp of technology and ad operations at the IAB, in a statement. "As technologists, tasked with delivering content and services to users, we lost track of the user experience."

And given that people particularly dislike political ads, it's important for campaigns to get the messaging right, notes Peter Pasi, vice president of political sales at Collective, a digital advertising firm. "People don't like political commercials and they hate being interrupted, so political campaigns have to get more creative," Pasi says.

For example, all of the presidential candidates are using content marketing tactics to engage voters in a way that's considered less intrusive than an explicit ad. Every candidate has an active social media presence as well as advocates creating content on their behalf. And some of the content is arguably entertaining. But whether candidates are able to convert their sophisticated ad campaigns into votes still remains to be seen.

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