In the final throes of the 2016 campaign, YouTube influencers are changing the way politicos now approach last-minute messaging.
In the hopes of coming across as more relatable for younger audiences, Congressional Leadership Fund, a Conservative Super PAC, has created its own YouTube spokesperson as the star of 11 ads across eight competitive congressional races. The series, "Real Talk with Ruth," aims to give viewers a break from the traditional attack-ad format used in the gritty game of politics.
The ads, which began on Oct. 27 and will run through Election Day, are primarily run through Google's advertising platform, along with a smaller amount of ad dollars going through Facebook. Primary target audiences include voters who have not yet decided on a candidate, along with Hispanic voters in several districts. (Ads are running in states including Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Texas.)
To find those voters, CLF did third-party matching with LiveRamp, working with The Data Trust—a top voter data source for Republicans—to attach a score of how likely Republican voters are to vote for the party, along with another score for how likely they are to actually go out and vote.
According to Mike Shields, president of the CLF, both parties have evolved their advertising since 2008, adding that the debate about spending is no longer focused on whether to spend money online, but how it should be spent.
"There's sort of a tug of war or an enlightenment in political campaigns when it comes to how they're spending their advertising dollars," Shields said.
Shields first thought about the idea while observing how his 14-year-old son watched videos of YouTube influencers at home. He noticed influencer videos often include just a "head and shoulders person" speaking into the camera, and wondered if his organization might benefit from taking that approach. (According to CLF and YouTube, this is the first time a campaign has created an online spokesperson, reminiscent of how 'Flo' became the face of Progressive.)
Creating a YouTube spokesperson
"When you start to think through having a specific online content creation wing of your team, then it makes a lot of sense to start to build a person who can have a relationship with the viewers online, which is exactly what these YouTube personalities do," Shields said.
The trick will be bringing the level of authenticity to the platform, a characteristic that has been key to the rise of many of YouTube's most famous personalities. However, Ruth Guerra, the star of the series, isn't a YouTube celebrity at all—she's a Republican spokesperson. Before joining the CLF earlier this year, she was the Hispanic outreach coordinator for the Republican National Committee before abruptly leaving back in July, around the time Donald Trump became the official presidential nominee for the Republican Party. (Several of the ads in the new campaign are in Spanish.)
Shields said the goal was to create something different than typical political ads—the type with "thunderclouds above the Capitol with lightening."
"Rather than having a very political-looking political ad that's very easy to swipe past because people are just inundated with so many ads, we wanted something that showed up in someone's feed that looks like the other things in their feed," Shields said. "[We wanted it to] look like something that would make people stop and say, 'Hey wait a minute. Who is this? Why are they talking about me and what are they talking about?'"
Asked how she prepared to try and emulate YouTube-style personalities, Guerra said the goal was to cut through the "political noise of the typical gloom and doom TV ad."
"You're having a conversation with a friend," she said in an interview. "And having that real and honest conversation about a candidate with a friend in a way that they can understand … in a relatable and concise manner, so you can get their attention in that time span."
So far, the series is outperforming other online ads that are merely repackaged from TV ads. Those featuring Ruth are viewed for 30 percent longer, adding about 16 more seconds of view time—essentially the length of a whole extra spot. They're also costing half as much on a per-view basis on YouTube and Facebook.
The 2016 campaign cycle has led to a record amount of fundraising for CLF. The Super PAC says it has so far raised at least $47 million, spent between 32 congressional district races mostly in October. Online media spend accounts for about $2.7 million, which is spent between YouTube and other digital media buys.
Making attack ads more digestible
However, the ads aren't necessarily rosy. In fact, unlike the positive nature of many YouTubers, the majority of ads in the series are attack ads with a different backdrop. Like traditional TV spots, the ads point out the political records of opponents in various congressional districts across the country. (Some of the ads echo talking points from TV ads run in various districts but with different creative.)
"We're delivering largely negative messages here, but cutting through the political clutter. At this point in an election, people have seen negative ad after negative ad and they start to just become noise, and [people] don't pay attention. They're either going to click past them or swipe past them in their feed unless it's something very compelling."
Shields said that while the ads are indeed largely negative in nature, they still include information CLF wants to get across.
"Look, I think this is 1.0," Shields said. "You're not going to see a lot of other YouTube ads like this. But you're also not going to see a lot of other political ads like this. We think we've created something new, and that a lot of campaigns in the future might follow this by having an online spokesperson that gets to build a relationship with their audience."
Targeting persuadables and Hispanics
According to YouTube, campaigns miss a certain population of people who don't watch traditional television, especially voting blocs such as adults ages 35 to 55, women, Hispanics and millennials. YouTube also says 57 percent of undecided voters say they're most likely to pay attention to political ads when they're online.
And while the ads CLF is running focus entirely on congressional races, the presidential race also plays a roll in how down-ballot races turn out. (Shields said he's seen some candidate's polls increase as Trump's polls increase.)
Asked who he plans to vote for, Shields declined to give an answer, instead focusing yet again on Congress.
"Our job is to elect Republicans in the House," he said.