Trump, Biden Presidential Campaigns Gave the TV Ad Business a Much Needed Influx of Cash

Most candidates for the Oval Office use advertising to hit a home run with viewers in the most pivotal states in the campaign. Joe Biden also aimed to hit one in the World Series.

In the telecast of the fourth game of the series, aired on Fox, Biden’s campaign launched a 60-second commercial narrated by actor Brad Pitt, who told viewers that “America is a place for everyone,” including “those who chose this country, those who fought for it, some Republicans, some Democrats, and most just somewhere in between.”

The Biden campaign flooded swing states with advertising too, but its decision to take out ads in the World Series and Sunday football games no doubt offered some comfort to beleaguered U.S. media companies grappling with advertising shortfalls during the coronavirus pandemic. Kantar/CMAG, a nonpartisan tracker of political ad spending, estimated in July that campaigns would lay out more than $7 billion across national and local TV, radio, Google and Facebook in 2020, “and I’m pretty sure it’s going to turn out to be more than what we projected,” says Steve Passwaiter, the unit’s vice president and general manager. (At press time, the results of the 2020 presidential race were not known.)

The numbers as chronicled so far have been eyebrow-raising. The candidates in the 2016 presidential election spent nearly $85 million on national TV advertising, according to Advertising Analytics, which tracks ad spending in real time. But in 2020, the company sees nearly $247.5 million being spent between Jan. 1, 2019, and Election Day — marking a 200% increase over the prior record.

“The amounts being spent, as compared to 2016, appear to be about two times as much,” says Mark Lieberman, CEO of Viamedia, which helps advertisers place commercials on local cable systems. “It’s truly extraordinary.”

So, too, was the election cycle. Politics remains a product largely sold market by market. Candidates typically tailor messages and spending by geographic region. There’s little reason to waste donor contributions with a commercial blitz in a state where voters are predisposed to lean Republican or Democrat, and much can be done by running dozens of promotions in markets where sentiment can be swayed.

Fundraising has been higher than normal, giving political strategists room to roam, says Brian Wieser, global president of business intelligence at GroupM, the large media buying firm owned by WPP. “There is so much money that it has to go somewhere, and at some point you start to run up against the limits of what you can do in any given local market.”

The Super Bowl provided the first distinct signal that spending patterns had changed. Both the Trump and Bloomberg campaigns took to the airwaves — Fox sought between $5 million and $5.6 million for a 30-second ad — in a venue typically reserved for glitzy spots from Pepsi, Anheuser-Busch and Procter & Gamble.

There’s no diminishment in [political] appetites for local markets. “The vast majority of it continues to go to local,” says Kantar’s Passwaiter, who cites several state propositions in California as well as nine competitive Senate races that have generated $100 million in spending each. Advertising Analytics says current races in Iowa, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Montana and Arizona have already made the list of the 10 most expensive Senate races of all time, with North Carolina’s accounting for $241 million.

Of course, digital advertising is playing a large role, too, as anyone who has received a text message asking for a candidate contribution or has seen web ads asking for the same can tell you. Google, YouTube and their partner properties have taken in more than $626 million in revenue since May 31, 2018, with the Biden, Trump and Bloomberg campaigns representing the three biggest political spenders.

The dynamics are welcome ones for TV networks and stations, which have seen advertisers claw back the usual commitments they make each year. Movie studios, a sizable TV category, have tamped down ad spending significantly, since many big releases have been postponed due to the pandemic. Travel advertisers have done the same. The sponsors who use Viamedia are gravitating toward Fox News, CNN and MSNBC, Lieberman says, but also putting noticeable amounts on HGTV and ESPN, where they can craft messages specifically for female audiences and male consumers, respectively.

Can the election dollars continue to flow? Advertising executives expect 2024 to be just as heated as 2020. The 2022 midterm will see 36 governors’ chairs contested, says Passwaiter, which could spur local and regional passion. “Every time we think it can’t get any bigger, it does,” he says.