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During election season in the US, you can’t watch television without seeing at least one political ad. This pervasive advertising has a significant impact on the media marketplace and can disrupt marketing campaigns if not planned for appropriately. Before you can successfully mitigate the disruption of any outside event, it’s important to understand the cycles and when and where the disruption is most likely to occur.

How Often Do Elections Disrupt Media?

In the US, major political elections happen every two years. During these elections, the entire House of Representatives is up for re-election along with roughly one-third of the Senate seats and an equal percentage of governors. Every four years there is an election for president - these years are usually the most disruptive.

Where Do Elections Disrupt Media?

It is important to understand that the impact of any election cycle is not equally dispersed across the country. For the most part, political advertising impacts local media channels, not national networks. You may have heard the phrase “all politics is local” – it’s true! The disruption caused by competitive elections impacts specific states, DMAs, and, in the case of some competitive congressional districts, specific areas within DMAs.

The disruption is not consistent, either. In many states there are primaries that are so competitive that they generate more disruption than the general election. In New York City, for example, the mayoral race is usually decided by the primary that occurs in June between Democratic candidates vying for the nomination. Those ultra-competitive local races can cause havoc in that particular media marketplace, typically lasting between six and eight weeks.

When Do Elections Disrupt Media?

US election advertising is governed by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), which sets the policies that major media (broadcast TV, local cable, DBS, as well as terrestrial and satellite radio) operate under. The FCC has set specific time periods ahead of specific election days as “political advertising windows” where the FCC rules apply. For any primary election date, the window is 45 days prior. For the general election, the political window is 60 days prior. The general election window is the easiest to understand, usually starting the 1st Tuesday in September and running 60 days until Election Day (the first Tuesday in November). The election window for primaries is governed by each state’s primary date, anywhere from early March through September. May, June, and August are the busiest months for primaries. The “political window” is an important date to keep abreast of.

The rules during the political window are very clear. Each station must provide the political candidates the lowest unit rate (LUR) for that time period. So, if the LUR for mid-day news at 12:00pm is $75, then the political advertisers pays $75.

Brand advertisers are usually paying below LUR since they are buying broader rotations of spots and don’t necessarily care if a particular spot does or does not clear. Many networks push performance marketers to the sideline during political windows to maintain a higher LUR and take advantage of the low-hanging fruit of political advertising dollars.  

Why Are Political Ads So Concentrated on TV?

Understanding when and where the disruption caused by political advertising are the first steps to successfully navigating through it. The next step is to understand a little more about why political candidates continue to buy the same type of media schedules cycle after cycle. In brand advertising and even in performance marketing, there is ample room for many different companies to carve out successful niches. Of course, every brand wants to be the number-one brand but there is still a very good business in not being number one. That is NOT the case in political advertising. There are only two US senators for each state – there is no room for the “third-best” or “fourth-best” senator. The finality of the election cycle has created the ultimate non-innovative advertiser. If radio and cable TV commanded 85% of the budget and the candidate won, then you can bet it will command an equal or higher percentage in the upcoming cycle.

What Can Advertisers Do to Adapt?

All of this focus and attention on traditional media means that the savvy brands of today have some hard choices to make. However, all hope is not lost. There are a variety of opportunities to continue thriving in traditional media.

  • Addressable Advertising: There is no LUR in addressable and political candidates are a little fearful of “over-targeting” and limiting their audience, making this an attractive space for brands.
  • On-Demand Advertising: On-demand advertising is a truly under-utilized segment of media and is one of the best inventory options available. Consumers usually cannot fast forward through commercials, and are less likely to change the channel because they’ll have to start the program over.
  • Broader Dayparts: Political candidates focus on news programming and syndication. They usually avoid daytime and late night, and are iffy about live sports. Consider buying inventory during times that candidates shy away from.
  • Be Flexible, Be Agile: Make sure your buyers alert the media sellers that your brand is flexible and can move quickly for the right inventory at the right price. Helping a station close a hole in its inventory because of a last-minute political advertising cancellation can bring some excellent inventory to the brand and help gain a trusted “friend” in the media seller.

The final piece of advice is to know the rules of political advertising and be prepared to push your media buyers to push the media sellers if issues arise with inflated rates or underwhelming negotiating, especially if it happens outside of the political window. Armed with the right knowledge, performance marketers can continue to thrive in traditional media during a competitive political advertising season.

Keep an eye out for our next blog post on election cycle advertising, which will cover marketing strategies beyond traditional media that can protect your campaigns from election disruption.