Wednesday and Thursday night in Miami, the Democratic presidential candidates will gather to debate on TV. That’s the old-school version of how presidential candidates will try to reach you. Campaigns are already spending a lot more on digital advertising in this election — especially on programmatic advertising, which automatically targets people based on habits, age and other information.
Those ads will follow you around the web, and to your phone, and even your TV. Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams is in our Washington bureau, and she’s been talking with companies like Centro in Chicago that do this kind of ad buying on behalf of campaigns. Host Molly Wood spoke with Kimberly about these targeted digital campaigns and first asked about why certain candidates’ ads pop up. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kimberly Adams: Let me give you an example, because this is what I ran through with Grace Briscoe of Centro. I said, “Look, if I’m sitting on my couch and binge-watching HGTV, are campaigns using the fact that I also — using that same internet connection — browsed on the Washington Post or The New York Times to serve me ads?” And she’s, like, “Absolutely.” And this matters because you think that whatever you’re seeing in ads and on TV might give you sort of a breadth of opinion and hear from different candidates, whoever is paying the most money. But what it really might mean is that you kind of end up in your own little echo chamber.
Molly Wood: One of the things we heard during the Cambridge Analytica scandal was that they were promising incredibly targeted ads, psychographic information. And I wonder how personalized are these programmatic ads, how personalized can they really get? Do they have 10 or 100 other data points about me?
Adams: It depends on what data set you bought and whether or not you can cross-reference some of those data points. For example, all of this information is supposed to be anonymous, and you donated to Greenpeace, so we have this email list of people who donated to Greenpeace. And you voted in the last election — we have that information from the voter rolls. And you like to shop at Nordstrom or something like that. We know that because you were part of the rewards program at Nordstrom. All of those lists are for sale. If you have the right software, you can tabulate all of those points together and get a sophisticated profile of who somebody is, what they like and what they may or not be reactive to in terms of political messaging.
Wood: Did you get a sense from Centro about how much of a differentiator this is?
Adams: I’d say ask President Trump. This was something very famously that the Trump campaign did in a way that Hillary Clinton’s campaign did not do as much. The Trump campaign invested heavily in Facebook and programmatic ad buys really targeting the voters that they needed in the electoral districts they needed, often ignoring other people who they knew weren’t going to vote for them.
Wood: How about the rules? There’s been a lot of discussion about how political ads should be regulated on social media or at all. How are the rules for these ads different from traditional television, if at all?
Adams: The rules are much stricter for traditional television. The Federal Election Commission has a lot of very specific guidelines about how you have to identify who paid for the ad, when it has to be, how long it has to be up. Sometimes it can even get down to the font size of a declaration of who paid for the ad when it comes to a TV ad, or even a radio ad. It’s a little more fuzzy when it comes to digital advertising. There’s been some industry effort within the digital advertising community to regulate itself and set out their own parameters for how they should identify these ads. And it is something that the Federal Election Commission is looking into and is trying to issue new regulations about it, but at the same time, the FEC is a little bit toothless right now because it doesn’t have the full commission in place and it’s been a bit of a challenge to get anything through there lately.
Related links: more insight from Molly Wood
There’s a story in Vanity Fair from Tuesday about tech startups that are trying to analyze propaganda and disinformation campaigns online and are trying to turn those learnings into political messaging. So if Democrats just figured out that programmatic advertising is a thing, these startups, like Main Street One, the company profiled in this piece, would be telling them to use social media influencers and memes.
There’s a story on Axios on how LinkedIn is going to try to be really professional and has spent the last year or so trying to elevate posts that are high quality and refer to specific professional interests — and they aren’t necessarily random viral posts or political posts, unless that’s your job.
The company says advertisers are increasingly interested in “high quality engagement,” instead of scrolling mindlessly, like through Facebook or Twitter for a few hours because you’re tired and don’t want to do anything else … and then you end up with one contact lens stuck to your eyeball because it dried out from not blinking … and you’re just kind of mad about everything … and it’s time to go to bed.
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