Why Political Campaigns Prioritize Digital Marketing

If you’ve been inundated by Donald Trump ads on YouTube’s front page lately, you’re not alone.


Janice Bae

3 years ago | 6 min read

(Photo by camilo jimenez on Unsplash)

I’ve been trying to avoid YouTube’s front page for the last few weeks because every time I land on the page I’m bombarded by some variation of a Donald Trump ad on the masthead that immediately starts blaring.

Digital landscapes are a political battleground during election years. After Obama used digital marketing strategies to great effect in the 2008 election, other campaigns have taken note and dedicated large portions of marketing budgets to running ads online ever since.

In fact, it’s estimated that $1.34 billion dollars will be spent on U.S. digital political ad spending for the 2019–2020 election cycle which is a little over three times the budget of the 2015–2016 election cycle.

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But it seems that with a rapidly evolving digital environment, policymakers can’t or won’t keep up with preserving the democratic process of our elections that is threatened by digital advertising practices.

Such efforts would require safeguards for our data and privacy, increased transparency and accountability, restrictions on ad spending, and limits on the techniques that are used to advertise to voters.

Political campaigns have realized that there is value in prioritizing digital political ad spending because of the lack of regulations and oversight for themselves as well as for the digital mediums through which they advertise — social media platforms.

The degradation of politics into a “spectacle” or a “sport” has also made digital political ad spending increasingly crucial in winning elections.

Opting out is not an option for any candidate.

Digitalization and its role in the “spectacle” of politics:

Chris Hedges writes in his book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle:

“It is style and story, not content and fact, that inform mass politics. Politicians have learned that to get voted they must replace the faux intimacy established between celebrities and the public.”

Digital advertising on platforms like Facebook and Google have afforded campaigns the uncanny ability to establish the faux intimacy that Hedges speaks of.

The same few ads are shown repeatedly with politicians speaking directly to the voter. There is very little substance or factual information being discussed in these 30–60 second snippets where candidates implore you for funding or for your vote.

It’s been boiled down to an “our team versus their team” mentality that seeks to entertain more than it seeks to educate.

Joe Biden’s campaign has been criticized by digital strategists for not catching up with the times and realizing that most voters consume politics as entertainment, something Donald Trump is all too aware of.

Donald Trump’s campaign bought out space on YouTube’s masthead during the Democratic National Convention and it has also bought out the space for election day of this year. The ads have sensational titles such as “Democrats Ruined Their Cities” and “Did Something Happen to Joe Biden.” While extremely strategic and entertaining, these ad buys resemble companies buying up ad time in the Super Bowl.

The messages are fleeting, but the reach is far.

The pilfering of data and the microtargeting of voters:

When you step into a voting booth you close a curtain behind you. Anonymity and privacy in the voting process are crucial so that you may not be swayed by any sort of external pressure that may unfairly influence your vote.

But with the massive amounts of data that have been scraped from users online, there’s no longer any privacy in the way you’re being targeted for political advertisements.

Your Google searches, viewed YouTube videos, hobbies, demographic, zip code, charitable pursuits, etc. nearly everything that leaves behind a trail from your internet usage is being tracked in an effort to figure out how you vote. Then political advertisements are carefully selected and shown to you in an effort to sway your vote a certain way. This is microtargeting.

Though proponents of this popular marketing tactic defend the notion that anonymity and privacy are being upheld because your data is void of truly identifying information such as your name or address, it’s concerning that we’re each only being shown what marketers have deemed politically strategic to show us based on other qualifiers.

If your friends and family are being shown ads that you might not possibly ever see, it’s almost as if separate realities and separate truths are being created for each person.

If given the choice, most Americans would reject being shown political ads in a tailored and targeted manner. A study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication found that a whopping 86% of Americans do not want “political advertising tailored to [their] interests.”

Clearly, Americans are of the mindset that they would like to be shown all the information that is available and left to form their own conclusions about political candidates, but marketers do not trust Americans to do so. It’s not in the best interest of the candidates who employ them so it seems Americans will continue to receive only a filtered and targeted version of what marketers deem is acceptable.

The digitalization of campaign advertising affords candidates greater influence and nearly unfettered power in creating the narratives that voters come to believe.

Products can’t be falsely advertised unless that product is a politician:

One of the first things I learned when I started studying copywriting was about the limits of stretching the truth. While we were encouraged to portray products in an appealing way, we were reminded not to mislead consumers to the extent that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) would crack down, pull our ads from the air, and take us to court. The consumers had to be protected from falsehoods after all.

Unfortunately, the FTC can only flex these powers in matters of commerce and politics are technically not a matter of commerce even though advertising for both happens on the same mediums.

Political advertisements are considered public discourse and fall under the protection of the First Amendment. Candidates can pretty much lie about whatever they want in their advertisements with the only recourse being the possible threat of being sued for defamation (something that rarely ever happens).

The absolution of social media giants:

While the content of political ads is given an unacceptably wide berth by the First Amendment, social media companies are also given an unacceptably wide berth because they are not beholden to the First Amendment.

Broadcast radio and television stations are not allowed to be selective about the political ads they air. They either ban all political ads or are forced to run all political ads regardless of the candidate or the content. Because of this, they cannot be sued for libel or otherwise held liable for false advertisements.

Social media companies operate in a separate sphere of influence in which they set their own content policies and can reject certain politicians from advertising on their platforms. You would think that because these companies have complete control over the content that they publish that they could be held liable for any falsehoods right?

Unfortunately not.

Because social media platforms hold status as internet service providers under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, they are freed from all such liability.

This has predictably led to confrontations on the Senate floor in which media magnates like Mark Zuckerberg are grilled about Facebook’s complicity in spreading false information in campaign ads — confrontations that have led to no recourse due to the legal absolution of social media companies.


At the crux of the issue, political campaigns have just too much to be gained from advertising in digital spaces. Platforms like Facebook and Google where most of this advertising takes place are akin to the wild west due to the lack of regulation.

While political digital advertising is valuable because it affords opportunities to reach more voters than can be reached through any other medium, the insidious use of data and the need to cater to the voters that see elections more as entertainment than anything else has made it absolutely indispensable.

We should rightly fear the role of digital political ads given that it incentivizes social media companies to harvest more data and to find increasingly better methods of manipulating voters with microtargeting strategies.

These technologies will only become more refined as time goes on and unless there is a cultural shift in the way we regard election media, it seems nothing will be able to stop it.

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Janice Bae







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