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Looking local: Targeted ad spending

Midterm elections generally have smaller advertising budgets than presidential election years, but this year is certainly not normal. With so many contentious elections on the ballot this cycle, ad spending is projected to be more than double that of 2018. With an increase in spending, overall outlets are seeing a nice boost to their bottom line. 

Local news outlets should be the perfect place for local campaigns to advertise. They are broadcast in very specific locations and can speak directly to the voters. However, advanced technology has allowed online platforms to perform hyper-targeted advertising, making the need for local outlets less necessary. What does this mean for local news organizations that have been struggling to stay afloat and what should you be asking about?

The latest: Streaming services

AdImpact projects streaming services to account for 15% – or $1.4 billion of the projected $9.7 billion – this election cycle. This is the first time streaming services are on the same level for political ad spending as Facebook and Google. The increase in this medium has largely been credited to the same advanced consumer-profiling and ad-tailoring that other online advertisers use, combined with the increase in cord-cutters and cord-nevers. As one consultant told the NYTimes, “In the digital ad world, you’re buying the person, not the content.”

With this technology, two neighbors can be watching the same show, but be shown different political ads. Although this sounds like a perfect situation, when it comes to political ads, it is important to ask if such extremely targeted messages are really the best way to win a campaign. Advertising to specific locations is perfect for a local district seat, but they may not be the most ideal way to sway new voters when they are targeted to specific individuals based on interests or demographics. 

An additional problem with the increase in political spending on streaming services is that like any new industry, they are highly unregulated. We saw the misuse of targeted advertising in the 2016 election, which prompted Facebook and Google to place some restrictions on political ad targeting. But current laws that govern broadcast and cable TV, don’t explicitly apply to streaming services, allowing streaming services to approach political ads differently.

Who is watching?

It is very well established that younger voters are spending more time online than older generations and politicians have had to adjust their marketing strategies to reach this demographic. Pew Research found that social media is the local TV of the Millennial generation. Their survey showed that 61% of Millennials reported getting their political news from Facebook, while 60% of Baby Boomers got their news from local TV.

A study published in 2019 found that Millennial voters were slightly more likely to vote in local elections when targeted through online ads. Although the effect was small, the authors noted that online ads could help the turnout of young voters who were harder to contact through more traditional methods, such as direct mail or canvassing. It is clear that younger voters simply aren’t getting political news in the same way their parents did.

What to ask

For local news organizations:

  • Who is watching/reading your content?
  • What are you doing to attract other demographics?
  • Have you seen an increase in ad spending this election cycle?
  • Historically, how has midterm elections impacted your revenue stream? Is that different from today?

For local campaign offices:

  • What is your marketing strategy?
  • How are you choosing outlets?
  • Are you advertising with a local news organization?
  • What percentage of your budget went to local companies?
  • What outlets do you believe have the greatest result per dollar spent?


  • Julianne Culey

    Julianne is the Assistant Director of the Reynolds Center with expertise in marketing and communications and holds a master's in Sociology from Arizona State University.

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