You’d be better off lighting your money on fire than giving it to a politician to spend on TV ads

Hillary Clinton may have lost to Donald Trump because she bought the wrong kind of ads.(Image: DonkeyHotey, [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0])

Political winners will be those who use digital advertising wisely; the losers will be the ones who stick with TV says Liberty Vittert

Liberty Vittert

Alright, you want to make this country a better place for yourself, your children and the many generations to come. So you make a donation to a political candidate you believe will fight for a better country.

But, in reality, you are wasting your money. Here’s why.

Television has long been the golden goose of political advertising. The conventional wisdom is that the candidate who can spend the most on it will most likely win.

With the exception of Donald Trump, almost every person elected president since 1960 has raised and spent more money than their opponent. That includes Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton and Obama – with a significant amount of that money being used to buy expensive television advertisements.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton raised over US$1.1 billion, as opposed to Trump’s grand total of less than $650 million. She outspent Trump almost three times over on television advertising.

So how is it that a presidential candidate won with less money raised and spent?

Spending where it counts

Some have attributed this to free media Trump received from television networks hungry for ratings. But, in many ways, that argument doesn’t hold water, so consider a different answer: digital advertising.

While he was outspent on TV, Trump spent four times the amount Hillary Clinton did on digital ads, which are any ad on a computer rather than the typical campaign ads on TV, mail or billboards.

Why would this be the answer?

As of 2016, a new era of politics has been established (arguably initiated by Obama in 2008), dominated by digital advertising. And no one has done it better than Donald Trump.

The wasted dollars of TV advertising

A typical House candidate will spend 65 percent to 70 percent of their entire political budget on TV and U.S. mail advertising.

When one of them advertises on TV, almost 80 percent of the money spent on the ads is spent broadcasting those ads to people who don’t vote or live in that candidate’s district. That’s because TV does not allow you to target your audience to the same precise level as digital can. This is true from major metro TV markets to rural states.

So if you give to a political campaign, then over 50 percent of your money is being spent on TV ads that do not reach people who can vote for your candidate.

What’s more, if you take into account what is spent on further advertising, it turns out that for every dollar you give, only 10 cents actually goes to engaging voters.

In effect, television advertising is the worst thing you can support in terms of impact for your money.

But, if you give to campaigns, both district-level and presidential, that advertise digitally, it is an entirely different story.

Digital advertising targets better

When politicians advertise digitally, their advertising can get smarter and more targeted. That’s because the digital advertising acquires more information on individuals and better learns what policies and causes the donor cares about.

For example, much of Donald Trump’s current Facebook advertising doesn’t even ask for money, it asks for information about you, such as which issues you are interested in and whether you favor building ‘The Wall.’ Here’s a screenshot:

And here are screenshots from a campaign website that the Facebook ad takes you to, which includes an “Official Secure The Border Survey.”

Screenshot, Trump campaign website.
Screenshot, Trump campaign website.(Screenshot: Facebook)
Screenshot, Trump campaign website.
Screenshot, Trump campaign website.(Screenshot: Facebook)

Trump’s digital ads not only ask for your opinion on a variety of topics, they also assign you a survey number and ask for all the data necessary (name, email, ZIP code, phone number) to target you individually for future voting and fund raising.

This is even more valuable than the advertisement itself, because individuals can continually be targeted on topics they specifically care about.

Trump spent 44 percent of his massive 2016 election media budget on digital advertising. Commercial companies spend 54 percent of their advertising budgets on digital advertising. But U.S. Senate campaigns only spent 4 percent to 7 percent on digital advertising in 2016.

Who do you think is spending more money on figuring out how people are responding to different forms of advertisement?

Now that he’s campaigning for re-election, President Trump is currently running thousands of ads per day on Facebook alone. That’s consistently more than the 23 Democratic candidates challenging Trump combined.

If this trend continues into the general election, it is pretty clear to me who most likely will win.

It seems that the winners will be those who use digital wisely – the losers will be the ones who stick with TV.

Liberty Vittert is currently a Professor of the Practice of Data Science at Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis and a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University. She is a graduate of MIT as well as Le Cordon Blue Paris and the University of Glasgow.

Liberty is a regular TV and Radio contributor to many news organizations including BBC, ITV, Channel 4, PBS, and FNC, as well as having her own TV series on STV. As a Royal Statistical Society Ambassador, BBC Expert Woman, and an Elected Member of the International Statistical Institute, Liberty is writing a series of popular science books on how to lie with statistics from the viewpoint of multiple professions. Liberty is currently on the board of USA for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) as well as being on the board for The Hive (a data initiative), one of the Fast Company's top 6 most innovative non-profits.

Disclosure statement: Liberty Vittert does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Note: originally published at theconversation.com.

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