Digital Losing Out on Campaign Ad Billions

Politicians love the Web for outreach, but television’s far ahead in the race for their ad dollars

These days, no self-respecting candidate would launch a campaign without a website, some online video, a Facebook page, and a good list of email addresses. (The really brave will have a Twitter account, too.)

Indeed, President Obama launched his re-election campaign by turning to digital media, sending an email to his supporters, and posting a video on his campaign website, The Republican National Committee responded in kind with the launch of a new Web domain,, and an online video.

But when it comes to political advertising, digital is still just a sideshow; even in 2012, candidates of all kinds will spend what amounts to pennies on digital ads, at least compared to the billions they’ll lavish on their television spots.

Admittedly, digital media can expect a big boost in 2012—but that’s only because total spending on political advertising is growing so fast. “The percentage of dollars going to digital isn’t changing much,” says Kip Cassino, executive vice president of research for Borrell, which tracks digital ad spending. Borrell forecasts that politicians will sink $100 million into digital media in 2012, up 354 percent compared to 2008 and up 127 percent over the midterm elections of 2010.

But even with those increases, digital will only make up about 1 percent to 2 percent of the total advertising spend, Cassino says. And that’s not likely to change even as races heat up.

“Everyone puts their ad up on YouTube and a website, but there you’re preaching to the converted. The thing about broadcast is, it finds you,” Ken Goldstein, president of Campaign Media Analysis Group, says, though he adds that digital “is a fabulous tool for organizing, stimulating your supporters, general outreach, and fundraising so that a lot of money can be spent on TV.”

Experts say there will be some differences in the way digital advertising is handled this cycle, though. Shawn Riegsecker, the chairman and CEO of Centro, an independent online buying shop that placed ads for the Obama campaign in 2008, thinks there’ll be more video in 2012.

“Candidates will buy up pre-roll inventory. They may even oversaturate it. It’s an easy decision to make,” he predicts. Riegsecker also expects campaigns to turn more to ad networks, which can handle the kind of targeting campaigns love to do in order to direct specially tailored messages to specific slices of the electorate. “You’ll see ads on Medicare to seniors, jobs to blue-collar workers, pro-choice to women,” he says.

Overall, though, don’t expect digital to change the political media mix in 2012.

“It won’t be a watershed year,” Riegsecker says. “As a segment of digital advertising, political is still lagging behind.”