Why You Likely Won’t See Too Much Political Advertising During the Olympics

Unless you live in a swing state

With the torch about to be lit at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, all eyes are on NBC. And with the TV-friendly time zone—Rio is only an hour ahead of the East Coast—NBC is looking to set records for viewership and advertising dollars.

But even as NBC is looking at a bigger haul for ad revenue than it had in 2012—in March, the network surpassed $1 billion in national broadcast, cable and digital sales, four months earlier than it did four years ago—don't expect an onslaught of campaign ads from Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Unless, that is, you happen to live in one of the 10 to 14 swing states that will likely determine which party wins the White House this year.

It would seem that the massive audience the Olympics provides—NBC drew more than 217 million viewers over the 17 days of the 2012 London Games, including an average of 31 million per night in prime time—would be an ideal chance for candidates to get their messages out. But with only so many political dollars to go around—Borrell Associates projected north of $11 billion in political advertising for the 2016 cycle—campaigns value efficiency over audience size, especially with all the ways available to reach voters, many of which didn't exist just four years ago.

"[Voter groups] can be found and targeted in way more efficient ways," said Lenny Stern, co-founder and CEO of SS+K, the agency behind youth vote campaigns for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Thanks largely to technology, marketers today have better ways to directly target specific audience segments rather than casting a wide, pricey net.

The average cost for a 30-second spot for Rio is $100,000, Kantar Media estimates, which would be a slight increase over the previous two Summer Olympics. But for prime time, that price could be as high as $1 million, according to The Wall Street Journal. "Finding voters in Virginia, Ohio, Florida or Wisconsin in the most efficient way is much more important than some scaled, amazing platform that grabs a lot of eyeballs," Stern argued.

The 2016 presidential election is anything but typical; you would have to be living under a rock, that was living under another rock, to not be familiar with the two candidates. After all, one is a former first lady, and the other is a reality TV star. "You're not introducing [voters] to new people," Stern said. "Here, you're really trying to target … people who are your supporters, or who are persuadable."

Campaign money swings into battleground states

Election ad dollars may not flow heavily on a national level—political advertising accounted for just 1 percent of all commercial inventory during the London Games—because for many campaigns, that spending occurs at the local station level. "You also bring into play on the Senate, House and local races," said Jon Swallen, CRO at Kantar Media. "There is a bigger pool of political advertising."

Kantar found that in 2012, the spending was much higher in key battleground markets than in non-battleground states. Political ads only accounted for 1.5 percent of all local station inventory during the games. For example, political ads took up 38 percent of Reno, Nev., NBC affiliate KRNV's inventory. Markets in other key battleground states including Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Missouri and Colorado were north of 15 percent. "The closer the race, the more money they generate," said Swallen. "All of these were key markets for the presidential election and were generally regarded as swing states."

Of the 20 markets that had the highest ratings for the 2012 Olympics, nearly half were in battleground states, including Kansas City (No. 2), Milwaukee (No. 3), Denver (No. 4) and Columbus (No. 5). Utah, which has voted Republican in 15 of the past 16 presidential elections, could be in play for Clinton. Salt Lake City had the highest ratings during London.

Though the Olympics is a sporting event, it tends to appeal to a very different audience than Sunday Night Football or the World Series. "There's a strong preference on the part of political advertisers for news and sports programming," said Swallen, noting the demographics both categories reach are attractive to campaign marketers. And while that would make it seem like MSNBC's or CNBC's audience would be ripe for political ads, those channels will be showing more niche events in Rio. "Roughly 90 percent of all viewing to Olympics was viewing that NBC brought in," Swallen said.

The Olympics is one part sports competition and one part reality show, since most of the athletes and sports are those that the average U.S. sports fan doesn't normally watch. For starters, the Olympics skews female—the audience for the previous two Summer Games was about 54 percent women. Most major sports in the U.S. skew heavily male. "[The Olympics] certainly attracts sports enthusiasts, but it also attracts a slightly broader audience," said Swallen.

The shifting dates of the Olympics, which can be held anytime between July and September, can also be a factor. In 2012, both party conventions were held after the games, which themselves took place a few weeks earlier than they do this year. "It is unusual for conventions to be held that late, but I don't think that had a significant effect on the relatively small volume of political ads," Swallen said, noting that most political advertising doesn't' really ramp up until after Labor Day.

NBC declined to say whether it had received any ad dollars from political campaigns—though Clinton reportedly is planning a sizeable buy—but NBC Sports' ad sales chief Seth Winter sounded optimistic earlier this year about getting some of those dollars. "We do hope that we do have an opportunity to participate in their campaigns," he said.

"There's been candidate spend on the Olympics, but it's just been a process of political ads being spread out into the summer," said Casey Phillips, co-founder of RedPrint Strategy, a media and digital consulting firm that works with conservative campaigns on the local level as well as issue-based groups on the national level. Phillips is bullish on the viability of buying time, particularly at the local station level, during the Rio Olympics. "We'll get a chance to get exposed to folks who may not be watching live TV on a regular basis," he said. "I think you're going to see more than usual on this Olympics."

Any time it's a presidential election with two new candidates—i.e., there is no incumbent running—interest is typically higher from voters. That has borne out in the amount of political advertising voters have been inundated with. More than 480,000 different ads have aired between January 2015 and early of May this year, up 122 percent over the same time frame during the 2012 cycle. Meanwhile, spending jumped from $120 million to more than $400 million, according to the Wesleyan Media Project.

Even so, don't expect too much of a jump in political advertising for Rio. "We're not talking about political being even 5 percent of all the commercials that air," said Swallen.