Political Conventions Are Muddled, but Candidates’ Digital Ad Spend Is Clear

Facebook, in the crosshairs of many brands, is still an effective avenue

joe biden and donald trump with a facebook logo in the middle and lightning coming out of trump
President Trump and former Vice President Biden are spending on digital channels as usual in a very unusual year. Photo Illustration: Trent Joaquin; Source: Getty Images
Headshot of Sara Jerde

Key insight:

If things had gone as planned, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden would be in Milwaukee, Wisc. right now, preparing to accept his party’s nomination for the presidential election, and we would already know who he’s chosen as vice president.

But 2020 is not going as planned, on so many levels.

The Democratic National Convention (DNC) was pushed back by five weeks and will not have the in-person crowds common at the four-day event. The Republican National Convention (RNC) is still planned for August, but not in its designated host city. Organizers moved it from Charlotte, N.C. to Jacksonville, Fla. in June.

If the ardent supporters can’t get to the candidates, the candidates are getting to their supporters online and on TV.

“We are definitely in a truncated season now,” said Allan Welch, director of political and government affairs at video advertising and monetization platform SpotX.

Political advertising is expected to reach $15 billion this year, according to the most recent forecast from GroupM. Of this, slightly more than half is forecast to be directed to local TV, in keeping with previous cycles.

President Donald Trump’s campaign has a $50 million ad spend running on Google and Facebook. It started in June and runs through Election Day. That’s $6 million more than the campaign spent in the same period in 2016.

Former Vice President Biden has booked $23 million on those channels. Comparatively, 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton spent $28 million in the same period, according to an analysis from Will Ritter, co-founder of conservative advertising agency Poolhouse, citing Kantar and Advertising Analytics.

This ad spend is a “game of chicken,” Ritter said. In a typical year, campaigns ramp up their spend after Labor Day. But it’s been starting earlier and the spends have been bigger.

“Once the other guy goes you pretty much have to go, too, or you’ll start taking on water as he erodes your positives and ups your negatives,” Ritter said. “Once you start spending in earnest it’s not smart to stop, so it becomes very expensive to start the war early and continue for months.”

Advertising accelerated last month when Trump and Biden spent more on Facebook and Google advertising than in any other month. Here’s a more detailed snapshot of their spending this year from Advertising Analytics:

In June, ads that were a call to action for potential voters reached more people than those addressing social concerns.

Ads asking for donations to Biden’s campaign performed best for the candidate on Facebook, with over 1 million impressions. Meanwhile, a call to download an app for Trump’s campaign performed similarly in the same period.

A top performing ad in June for Trump's campaign.

Digital advertising is expected to grow even more this year as campaigns compensate for hand-shaking and baby-holding that’s been made impossible due to the pandemic.

“The virus has really created a completely different environment where the traditional political strategy to reach your voters has changed with in-person contact,” Welch said.

A top performing ad in June for Biden's campaign.

Another challenge for this year’s digital ad spends is advertising on platforms that have been accused of voter manipulation in the past. Social media platforms entered this political season with a special spotlight, given the role social media played in the 2016 presidential election.

And Facebook has had new attention, with critics saying it fosters misinformation and hate speech, which has led to big-name brands boycotting spending on the platform and Instagram this month.

‘We cannot afford to cede these platforms’

The brand safety conversation means something different to political candidates looking to reach voters, though.

While still spending on Facebook, Biden’s campaign launched a petition to encourage the company to clean up misinformation on the platform.

“We share the concerns of companies who are speaking up about Facebook’s inaction around making meaningful changes that protect our democracy,” Biden campaign spokesman Bill Russo said in a statement. “But with less than five months until Election Day, we cannot afford to cede these platforms to Donald Trump and his lies.”

Trump’s reelection campaign did not return a request for comment.

The campaigns should consider how potential voters would interpret seeing their messages on those channels, said David Schweidel, a marketing professor at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. And that might mean something different for the Trump campaign than it does to Biden’s, analysts told Adweek.

While there’s “not much risk” associated with Trump continuing to advertise on Facebook, Biden “may have to think twice,” Schweidel said.

“Biden’s supporters are more likely to include constituents who support the current boycott and may be disappointed to see him advertising on the platform,” he added.

Channels like Google and Facebook continue to provide targeting capabilities that are especially attractive to a campaign, as well as additional tools to better reach those potential supporters, such as Facebook’s organic social features, said Alixandra Barasch, assistant professor of marketing at NYU Stern School of Business.

“The strategies will only shift to the extent that they have to. If potential voters see advertising on Facebook as a negative signal about a candidate, then they might avoid using this platform,” Barasch said. “However, we are pretty far from that right now, and the benefits of using social media far outweigh the potential costs in terms of brand safety.”

@SaraJerde sara.jerde@adweek.com Sara Jerde is publishing editor at Adweek, where she covers traditional and digital publishers’ business models. She also oversees political coverage ahead of the 2020 election.