Political Ad Spend Going Up: What Publishers Should Consider Before Running Them

This country is no stranger to political controversy. 

However, the past couple of years has boasted an unprecedented amount of political strife with a highly controversial president, a reckoning for the country’s systematic racism, a global pandemic, and even the recent reversal of Roe v. Wade. Within the context of this political climate, it is easy to understand why political ad spend has reached an all-time high in 2022. 

According to recent research, nearly $3.6 billion has been spent on issue and political ads this year, and overall spending is projected to reach nearly $10 billion. These stats obliterate the 2018 and 2020 spend cycles as the largest midterm election year by ad spend. The shift also marks increases in political ad budgets toward connected TV

While most political ad spend went to linear TV in the past, spend has begun to migrate to digital and streaming services. Walled garden platforms such as  Twitter, Tik Tok, Hulu and Spotify, tended to shy away from political and issue ads because the threat of spreading misinformation and brand safety concerns were too huge of a risk. But now, some of these platforms have lifted their political advertising bans predicated on the belief that the benefit of increased revenue might outweigh the risks of running political ads. 

How does this trend affect the ad tech industry and how should publishers begin to prepare? 

Political Spin Affecting Brand Safety

“Political ads are really tough,” says Gavin Dunaway, Product Marketing Lead at The Media Trust. “The revenue is great, but is the revenue worth the ire of your audiences? We have studies that show when audiences are delivered positive or benign ad experiences, they spend more time on publications. You need to be attuned to your audience when dealing with potentially controversial content.”  

Many companies worry about the safety of their brands running political and issue ads because of the polarized political climate. While publishers might have systems put in place to filter out potentially controversial ads, they are often misled by ad buyers that are mislabeling the ads or obscuring the domain. 

For example, in the Trump era campaign cycle, publishers noted that his ads would slip through defenses because they were categorized as consumer electronic ads or labeled as completely different brands such as Kraft Heinz. One particular publisher said their ad ops team was fooled by a pro-Trump ad that featured images of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. 

Oftentimes, publishers find out too late that these ads are running. It is essential that these ads are categorized correctly before publishers are bombarded from messages by irate consumers or internal team concerns around brand safety. Dunaway’s company, The Media Trust, focuses on digital trust and safety to ensure a digital consumer’s wellbeing across what he calls the “connected landscape.” 

These responsibilities include things such as stopping malware from hitting consumers alongside categorizing ads. While many publishers use programmatic systems to categorize them, Dunaway suggests having on-site teams to check them manually as well to catch ads that might trick the system. 

“We flag ads that may be sensitive in more than 40 different categories that we created ourselves, including political ads,” says Dunaway. “Publishers have to be really nuanced when they’re trying to figure out their policies and they need nuanced tools that can help them deal with it. We use artificial intelligence to flag sensitive content at scale, but we make sure that the display creatives are verified through human eyes to ensure that the categorization is correct.” 

Floodgates Opened For Ad Fraud and Misinformation

Even more heinous, the rise of political ad revenue has opened the floodgates for ad fraud and the spread of misinformation. 

For instance, during the 2020 Presidential election 13% of the $377 million spent on digital political media could have been subject to ad fraud. The fraudulent ads were a result of  bot-makers who created “millions of headless browsers that can simulate all human-like actions such as mouse movement, page scrolling, and clicks, to load webpages and cause ad impressions that appear entirely human.” 

Generally, the checks and balances for political ad buy is an afterthought, because the only day that matters to the campaign is election day.  In an ad ops business there is a focus on filling inventory and a team that constantly checks if their campaigns are meeting advertiser KPIst. For political campaigns, there is a lot of fast spending and because campaigns run for   short periods there is generally no accountability for ad fraud.  

Dunaway also asserts that fraud is common in political advertising because of the quality of the inventory. 

“It’s really hard for candidates if they’re trying to leverage programmatic advertising, because the bar to get premium inventory and premium programmatic service is really high,” says Dunaway. “You have to have a certain amount of money so they go with smaller platforms with cheaper inventory and that’s when you get tons of ad fraud.” 

The spread of misinformation opens up another can of worms. Essentially, candidates are allowed to lie in their paid ad campaigns. According to NPR correspondent Domenico Montanaro, “The federal government does regulate truth in advertising, but that only applies to commercial ads, not political ones.” For this reason, it is easy for political misinformation to spread through broadcast television because they are required to air these unfiltered ads.

Electing Publisher Consideration

This year major publishers have already announced that they will begin to run political and issue ads even if they declined to do so in the past. For example, Spotify stopped running political ads in 2020 because they felt their system was not “robust” enough. 

Spotify spokesperson Erin Styles said in an official statement that, “Following our pause of political ads in early 2020, we have spent the past two years strengthening and enhancing our processes, systems and tools to responsibly validate and review this content.” The ads will run on Spotify’s podcasts and they will use AI-driven contextual targeting to place ads with audiences relevant to the content they are engaging with. 

The reality is that publishers are coming to terms with the fact that the revenue for political ads might outweigh the possible backlash from running them. Even Hulu, who faced controversy from Democrats for not running abortion and gun control ads, announced they will accept political ad spend. 

It is important that publishers weigh the pros and cons for their specific business and audience before making the decision to run political advertising. 

“Make sure your political advertisements do not distract from the content that has already built your brand,” says Dunaway. “Executives need to get together and decide what the political ad policy is going to be. Understand that you’re opening a can of worms here. It could be a very lucrative can of worms, but it is a can of worms and you should be prepared for what’s coming through the door.”