A Look Into Why Joe Biden’s Campaign Is Investing in OTT This Election Cycle

He's one of the only candidates to give streaming platforms such a large focus

Joe Biden on a TV screen surrounded by devices such as xbox controller, ps4 controller, amazon fire stick and roku
Former Vice President Joe Biden is strategically using OTT advertising in his 2020 bid for the White House. Illustration: Trent Joaquin; Sources: Getty Images, Amazon, Roku

If you’re in Iowa and identify as a “cord-cutter,” you’ve likely seen a message Joe Biden approves on Hulu.

The former vice president is investing in the medium this presidential election as part of a larger ad buy in early-voting states as the race gets closer to choosing a Democratic nominee. For political candidates and issues, OTT advertising represents a new opportunity to reach potential voters.

OTT is giving campaigns at all levels, including local and national races, new targeting tools and more informed insights than linear TV spots. It’s also a medium that allows campaigns to produce the same quality of advertising that viewers are accustomed to seeing on the TV screens.

“I see it as that being the real gem of the 2020 cycle,” said Kyle Benn, vp of sales on political ad spend at video ad platform SpotX. “It’s been a steep learning curve and slow adoption, but campaigns are seeing what [OTT ads] can do for them.”

Biden’s campaign, for example, is using the medium as part of a larger, holistic way of advertising that includes the standard TV and social spots. The campaign began placing ads on Hulu as far back as the end of August, with a spot called Personal that shared Biden’s personal experience with having healthcare in the country.

The Biden campaign’s latest Hulu ad postures him as someone with the ability to continue as an international leader and serves as another example of how he’s strategically using the medium to showcase the candidate’s biographical history to voters.

“We recognize the growth of non-linear TV and will continue to invest in it as part of the paid media campaign,” said Patrick Bonsignore, director of digital advertising for Biden’s campaign.

The goal of the digital ad campaign is to touch potential voters at multiple points of the day on the platforms they’re using. Theoretically, a user wakes up and sees an ad on Instagram, comes across another during lunch while surfing YouTube and sees another ad right as they settle into a program on Hulu. In all, the Biden campaign is spending $6 million for TV and digital ads in early-voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

“There’s an integrated media strategy that’s really important to us and involves working closely with our analytics team and media buyers,” Bonsignore said. “How can we reach and persuade caucus-goers on TV and online with ad experiences that lay down key elements of the vice president’s biography and make a case for him?”

Biden’s campaign is not alone in thinking this way, and the OTT space is likely to attract even more political dollars as November approaches. And not even just at the presidential level. Local and state races are also entering this space, Benn said, as connected TV becomes “the mandatory complement to the TV buying they’ve always done.”

In the 2016 presidential election, broadcast and cable attracted more political ad dollars than other mediums. For example, the 2016 campaign to elect now-President Trump spent more than 40% of its media budget on digital while the Clinton campaign spent 2.5% of its total budget. But experts are expecting that gap to narrow due to OTT devices and social media platforms, especially among Democrats as they chase the kind of reach Trump obtained in the last cycle.

But there’s still an “over-emphasis” on TV spends, said Anjelica Triola, director of marketing at progressive-leaning consultancy Wethos, who added that OTT devices give campaigns more information than standard TV buys. Instead, she said, candidates would be best served in finding ways to genuinely and authentically connect with potential supporters online, like the way Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who is also running for the nomination in the 2020 presidential election, has filmed herself calling small-dollar donors.

The Biden campaign is using Hulu to repackage ads modeled after professional linear TV spots over the social ads one might see in Facebook and YouTube feeds. On Hulu, campaigns have the ability to target a set of first-party data, information that subscribers give when they sign up, including their age, gender and zip code.

“We really believe in the targeting mechanism. The data we’re getting back is confirming or helping us tweak assumptions,” Bonsignore said.

Hulu, which now boasts more than 28 million subscribers, has tried to innovate its ad offerings beyond placing an ad in between programming, including original shows like The Handmaid’s Tale. They also released a new ad format targeting binge-watchers, which the service announced at its NewFronts presentation to advertisers in May.

A spokesperson for Hulu did not return requests for comment.

Hulu stands out from the crowd not only because it’s attempting to innovate its ad offerings but because it’s already in this space as an ad-supported streaming service ready to take political ad dollars. This in contrast to potential competitors like NBCUniversal’s streaming service, Peacock, and WarnerMedia’s HBO Max (in 2021), which are each expected to have ad-supported versions.

There’s a lot to gain by placing ads on OTT devices in terms of political advertising. OTT advertising has the potential to win over advertising dollars in the way that social media did in the 2016 presidential election, Benn said.

And while OTT isn’t seen as replacing advertising on any one medium, it will contribute to the record-breaking $10 billion that some are predicting will be spent on political advertising this election cycle.

“It’s really been that recognition that there are other choices, but [campaigns] are a lot more open to evaluating those choices and putting together a more comprehensive plan than using the methods that always worked this way in years past,” Benn said.

@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.