Digital spending hits record in US midterms

WASHINGTON • Even as online platforms tightened rules for political ads, digital spending set new records in this year's US midterm elections and appears poised for further growth in 2020.

Digital media campaign spending rose 2,400 per cent from the 2014 midterms to US$1.8 billion (S$2.5 billion), roughly 20 per cent of the total US$8.9 billion in ad spending, preliminary data from research firm Borrell Associates shows.

Online spending, much of it on social networks such as Facebook, has been a significant factor in campaigns for a decade, but tighter rules imposed by digital giants in the wake of the 2016 polls could have curbed some of that growth.

Mr Kip Cassino, lead author of the Borrell study, said the online sector kept up a strong growth pace despite new guidelines from Facebook, Twitter and others requiring verification of advertisers to address concerns about foreign influence campaigns.

Digital has some advantages over traditional media such as television, notably the ability to send out messages quickly and targeted to specific groups of voters. "They can take advantage of an opportunity very quickly, within seconds," Borrell said. "You can't do that with legacy media."

Additionally, campaigns can finely target voters by geography, age, affiliation and interests, based on data gleaned by online firms.

But it remains unclear what, if any, new privacy rules may come into effect before the 2020 elections. Any regulations similar to those imposed in Europe could, in theory, limit campaigns' ability to target ads without consent from users.


Dr Michelle Amazeen, a Boston University professor specialising in political communication, said campaigns this year were able to use finely targeted ads, including many "attack ads", whose source was not clearly identified - in some cases seeking to get press attention from "sensational" or inaccurate claims.

"There are loopholes where people can run ads and there's no real confirmation of whether that individual or group is who they say they are," Dr Amazeen said.

Facebook's political ad report showed US$353 million in spending by campaigns on its platform since May, with unsuccessful Texas Democratic Senate candidate Beto O'Rourke the largest spender, with US$7.1 million, followed by President Donald Trump's campaign committee, with US$3.4 million.

Broadcast TV still made up nearly 40 per cent of all campaign spending and cable TV 12 per cent.

Dr Amazeen said television remains a key medium because of a large body of research showing its effectiveness, and because older voters are less reachable on online platforms.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 12, 2018, with the headline 'Digital spending hits record in US midterms'. Print Edition | Subscribe