Political Advertising in 2016 Showed Sizable Channel Shifts

Political advertising reached $9.8 billion in the 2016 election year, marking a more than 4% increase from the 2012 election cycle ($9.4 billion) and representing a new record, according to Borrell Associates. But while the spending amount was in itself interesting, the channel breakdown may have been more noteworthy.

The biggest decline in political ad spend share was felt by TV, which dropped from more than two-thirds (67.4%) of spending in 2012 (broadcast and cable combined) to less than 60% (58.5%) this past year.

Broadcast TV was the biggest loser, plummeting from a majority (57.9%) of all spending in 2012 to 44.7% in 2016. While broadcast TV remained the single largest medium for political ad spending, its status clearly declined. By contrast, cable TV actually saw its share of spending increase from 9.5% in 2012 to 13.8% in 2016. As such, amid falling spend, TV allocations shifted away from broadcast and towards cable. This could have been with the goal of reaching younger voters, as MarketingCharts research indicates that cable attracts a slightly younger audience than broadcast.

Meanwhile, radio joined broadcast TV as having one of the larger setbacks this past election cycle, dropping from 8.6% of spend in 2012 to just 6.3%. While print has certainly had its problems, newspapers’ share of spend remained largely intact at 6.7% (down from 7.2% 4 years earlier), as did magazines’ piece of the pie (1.4%, down from 1.7%).

In a recurring theme for traditional media, out-of-home also saw a decline – though slight – from 4% of spending to 3.5%.

These are very interesting trends in light of research last year from PwC, which called for TV, radio and out-of-home to see ad spend increases of varying degrees over the next 4 years while newspapers see steep declines. In other words, political advertising trends don’t seem to be moving in lockstep with the broader market.

One thing that is for sure: more spending is being allocated to digital media. A lot more. In its study, Borrell Associates reports that digital accounted for 14.4% of all political ad spending last year, an impressive 8.5x higher than its 1.7% share of spending in 2012. For context, that new figure of 14.4% matches the share of spending allocated to print (newspaper / magazine) and radio combined.

Digital’s rise might well have been predictable, but it will be interesting to see to what extent broadcast TV’s significant decline was a trend or a flash-in-the-pan owing at least in part to one candidate’s ability to gin up plenty of airtime without advertising…