November 8, 2023
October 26, 2022

Political Advertising: Midterm Elections 2022

Brady Akers
Head of Client Services

A Conversation with Undertone's Kyle Knauff, Meagan Stickle, and Schuyler Williams and Spaceback's Brady Akers

Election season is in full swing! With each election cycle comes an inundation of ads across the digital space (CTV, programmatic, social media, text messaging, you name it). Even though there isn't a presidential election this year, the midterm election season is a big deal.

According to CNBC, over $6.4 billion has already been spent on ads for the 2022 election cycle. That makes this the most expensive race ever as it surpasses ad spend from both the 2018 and 2020 elections.

A Statista graph showing the steady increase in political advertising spend during each major election cycle.
Source: Statista

Advertisers have a ton to navigate, such as abiding by the somewhat confusing regulation for political posts on social media, staying up-to-date with the most current messaging trends, and ensuring the advertisements are converting and successful for the candidate.

I recently spoke with one of our partners, Undertone, and their team based in Washington, D.C. about political advertising and specifically how their solutions have made a huge impact on the political advertising space for the midterm election cycle this year.

*This conversation occurred on September 22, 2022.*

Brady Akers, Head of Customer Success, Spaceback: Thanks for joining me today, Undertone team! I'm really excited for our discussion on the digital trends and challenges you're seeing emerge across political organizations this election season. To get started, can you tell us more about what you do for Undertone?

Schuyler Williams: I'm the Associate Sales Director at Undertone for the DC office. In tandem with Kyle, we cover the DC, Virginia, and Maryland territory both in political and outside of that sphere.

Kyle Knauff: I'm Undertone's Senior Account Executive in DC. Schuyler and I serve as paid media strategists for agencies, brands, and organizations hoping to break their campaigns through the clutter with engaging ad experiences.

Meagan Stickle: I'm the Director of Product and Brand Marketing at Undertone. I help create content for all of our external marketing initiatives across social sponsorships, email blasts, whatever it may be, along with helping with internal and external rollout of new products.

Brady: Now that summer is over and elections are just a few weeks away, what's the environment in DC like right now?

Kyle: The DMV is abuzz with activity—in a positive way. Things have heated up even more since National Voter Registration Day in late September.

Brady: Are you starting to see more ads on your TV screens and on digital?

Schuyler: Yes, from both a personal and professional standpoint I'm seeing a lot more political advertising activity. There's an influx of RFPs and RFIs for ad formats that we can run, along with an interest in our super quick turnaround times. It's always unpredictable with political ads, and midterm election years are treated a little differently than presidential election years. But it's all very exciting. Things started to pick up midway through Q3, but it's really picking up right now in this last month.

Brady: Are there any particular channels that you're seeing political organizations and candidates especially interested in this year?

Schuyler: Almost every single request involves some sort of video aspect or asset. That could be CTV, online video, or high impact ads that house video. We're executing video more than anything.

Kyle: We're also seeing more effective CPM-based display as a "Get Out the Vote" strategy as a complement to the awareness-based standard CTV and linear buys as we get closer to November. It's definitely video-focused, but there's also an uptick in the display space.

Brady: Are you seeing a delineation between people wanting CTV vs. online/in-stream video (pre-roll, mid-roll, and post-roll)? Are they getting granular or are they looking at video more holistically?

Schuyler: That depends on the ask. In one case for example, someone came to Undertone to run video and asked if it made more sense to run CTV or video with a high impact unit on display given their KPIs. It came down to the scale and reach. Where did they feel they needed more eyeballs? It turned out they would have greater incremental reach with the online display unit vs. CTV because they were already doing a lot of broadcast and linear TV spots.

So it really just depends. Kyle and I see ourselves as consultants here; it's not just about pushing whatever the higher CPM is. In this case we went with our page-grabber unit that houses video and branding within it to make sure we hit the KPIs they outlined.

Brady: Very nice. Can you mention each video format that Undertone offers?

Schuyler: We offer Standard CTV, which is brought through other partners as well. We also offer video formats that are unique to Undertone.

  • Live CTV: For example, an MLB game—or SEC football could be playing, and an ad appears alongside the content without a break in the content, which guarantees more eyeballs.
  • Branded CTV: Where the video spot is surrounded by branding, animations, and so on. 
  • Interactive CTV: A user can use their SmartTV remote to interact with the ad. As an example, we can include an ad carousel that users can click through on photos or additional videos with more information.
A demo of an interactive CTV carousel ad from the Biden Harris campaign.
View the interactive CTV carousel here.
*Advertisement is for illustrative purposes only.*

We've gone to market with the ability to turn these formats at the speed of political advertising—that's something we couldn't do during the last election cycle. What normally would've taken us several days at the very least, we're now getting it up and running on CTV within 24 hours of receiving just a few assets. It's changed the game because we can act at the pace and agility our client partners have always wanted.

Brady: Based on the units I've seen, they're really compelling and engaging formats. I'm sure clients are seeing a lot of success with them.

Kyle, you made a really good point about the speed at which you can get ads up and running in 24 hours—that’s insanely quick. Are your clients coming to you with video assets already produced or are they wanting help with creative production?

Kyle: It really depends. Some firms have a steady stream of video and static production—as there is almost always a need to pivot messaging very quickly. Other agencies don’t have that same access. The production costs can be really challenging for a lot of creative agencies and media buyers.

We’ve found strong success leveraging Spaceback in these instances because you don’t need to put a ton of production dollars into launching these spots or a short video. Instead, we can leverage these already-existing assets and push them into a more targeted environment to find the right people in the right place at the right time.

Brady: I couldn't have said it better myself. Especially given the increasing rules and restrictions around paid political ads on each of the social networks, it's getting harder for campaigns and causes to reach the exact audience on social with their ideal messaging. This is another big opportunity we're seeing for Social Display—the ability to take organic content from TikTok, Twitter, Facebook or wherever, and put them into formats like Undertone’s, allowing them to really target specific audiences and receive quality measurement and analytics around the results from those initiatives.

A Social Display story ad for the U.S. Coast Guard showing troops exiting a helicopter.
View the full Social Display ad here.
*This creative is in no way associated with political advertising as the United States Coast Guard is a non-political client of Undertone’s.*

The last election was a learning experience for all of us. Do you have insights around social platforms that may have changed their stances that make it more challenging to do paid?

Brady: I think that they're all admirably trying to take greater steps to have the right rules in place, but it's really just caused more frustration and confusion for agencies and organizations who are trying to do things correctly. And then you have TikTok making a full-fledged "No political advertisements" stance, which might prevent unwanted outcomes but at a great expense. It's the fastest-growing social platform, so it's a place a lot of campaigns want to be but are limited to getting their messages out organically.

Meagan: Meta's changes to the policy are very confusing. They limit ad spend but don't say what that limit is.

Brady: Exactly. It varies from campaign to campaign, and that lack of clarity and consistency makes it hard for any other agency to do their job well.

Meagan: Twitter: Can we promote political tweets?

Brady: You can with Social Display. Politicians and organizations are very active and post a lot of organic content on Twitter, so it's one of our most popular Social Display options for political ads.

Meagan: Yeah, it's an interesting play because people can respond in real time, and we can recreate that post on the back end easily to get it live for programmatic.

Brady: Continuing on this topic of ad policies and restrictions for Undertone clients running political ads, what policies do you have to adhere to?

Meagan: From a very top-line standpoint, we can't promote anything that incites hate or violence.

Schuyler: All political ads need to have a "paid for by" disclaimer and legitimate click through URLs (we need to vet the site that it's clicking to). The only other area we've had to be cognizant of as we work more with political consultants is the funding aspect. Each state has its own rules, so it varies from campaign to campaign.

We're getting ready to launch a campaign for a State election candidate: There's an independent expenditure donation, so they're allowed to raise money, pay for advertising, and run the advertising for the candidate, but they can't coordinate with the candidate directly, so none of the candidate's staff or team can be involved. That would apply to any type of advertising for political campaigns.

Meagan: You also can't launch until a certain amount of time before the election in certain local regions.

Brady: I'm starting to see a few more ads here and there, but I'm waiting to get inundated. How many are you running for political candidates?

Schuyler: Some have already launched late in Q3, but things are really ramping up right now with several in the queue for Q4. There's this scramble now, but we're getting ready for more and more.

Meagan: Normally, in the past during election time, we start getting last minute, next avails requests around now. These requests include not only Undertone's standard formats, but our proprietary formats that we can amplify. That's an extra impression they couldn't get elsewhere.

Brady: And with the spend cap from Meta, it sounds like this plays nicely into opportunities for you all and Spaceback. I know Schuyler, it's early and there's a lot more activity in the lead-up to elections, but are there any early results you can share from those campaigns?

Schuyler: We've had tremendous success on a campaign we ran on behalf of a PAC. They were promoting one of the State Primaries earlier this summer using our live CTV and live OTT platform that led to success and that candidate winning. Another candidate for the U.S. Senate is currently running a multi-faceted campaign that includes live CTV, Spaceback's Social Display, and our page grabber with video in English and Spanish with multiple ad swaps.

Stats are very high. Right now, we're seeing well above the typical 0.3% CTR with Spaceback. We just launched three other campaigns in the past week or ten days using our page grabber with video, CTV, and branded CTV. Things are very video-heavy right now. So far, clients have been super happy and we're excited about it.

Brady: Terrific to hear! It sounds like really encouraging results so far. When it comes to CTV, how does Undertone or your clients measure/view success? What are they ultimately measuring through those campaigns?

Kyle: Undertone considers CTV not as OTT in its larger sense, but streaming on the largest screen in the house. So we naturally expect to deliver view completion rates above 98%. The real focus when considering CTV is reach—maximizing reach and frequency or optimizing those two. While standard CTV advertising focuses on building awareness, adding in the high impact elements that we’re able to offer shifts the campaign’s strategy to include the middle or ‘consideration’ section of the funnel.

It even works toward direct response in the lower side of the funnel when we’re able to include QR codes or interactive carousels with multiple messages that are 15 or 30 seconds. Viewers are prompted to engage with that ad with their device’s remote and click through additional videos or imagery. It’s almost like a landing page on the TV. That adds a lot more time spent with the content than the 15 or 30-second spot produced and purchased. Finally, the ability to re-market on mobile and desktop to those who saw an ad on CTV and searched a particular URL on their second or third screen brings CTV to a full-funnel tactic. 

Some metrics from the advertising formats that Undertone offers

That's really fascinating. It sounds so much more advantageous compared to Linear TV. How do costs compare with Interactive CTV vs. Linear?

Kyle: It can be much more cost-effective. CTV also allows the ability to target with much more granularity. The Undertone team and I are always proponents of linear TV as a marketing tool even though it's not something we offer. Linear allows advertisers to reach the broadest number of folks in one fell swoop. Both have a proper time and place; we're proponents of the appropriate mix.

Schuyler: At Undertone, we take an audience target first approach. Instead of just running ads on ESPN or CNBC, let's say you're looking to reach women over 35 in the Denver DMA during this time period. We work toward finding that audience right where they are by working with over 20,000 publisher sites, channels, and apps to find that audience right where they are, and apply that to whichever ad format we're utilizing. So when looking at reach and frequency, that's an asset we have that we can offer our clients to utilize.

Brady: That does sound much more efficient. Streaming overtook cable TV for the first time ever in terms of share of time spent watching in July. It seems like streaming and CTV are here to stay. It should be a part of any media campaign moving forward

Kyle: Another format advertisers should be using more is Social Display. We love the attention capturing with Spaceback. People aren't used to seeing a social experience in an ad format outside of the respective social channels. We think part of why Spaceback units are so successful is because they are attention-grabbing. It's a different experience. In this day and age, you can really hone in on what social channels resonated with those folks. It's a great tool to have for any brand, media strategist, campaign, cause, you name it.

A Social Display ad from the US Coast Guard.
View how this Social Display ad appears online.
*This creative is in no way associated with political advertising as the United States Coast Guard is a non-political client of Undertone's.*

And with political, the game has changed so much in the past several years. Every candidate has a social presence, so utilizing the unique formats we have with Spaceback has been really helpful. We can say, "This is how you're gonna stand out from our opposition." We focus our work on increasing frequency and reach by utilizing assets that already exist. It's a no brainer to use Spaceback. Social has become such a primary platform for political candidates and causes and working with Spaceback has been a great partnership for us.

Meagan: Social in general is a very easy place for advertisers to go live. Q4, regardless of political season, is a super busy time. CPMs are generally higher in Q4 because of that, but adding the political cycle makes them even more expensive. Using Spaceback allows us to utilize a flat CPM instead of bidding, so it's more cost effective during their busy season.

An Instagram post of a political candidate is displayed on the left and that same social post as a Social Display advertisement is on the right.

Great points all around. Just the psychology behind even the social elements—candidates want to show that they have support behind them, so including social likes, comments, and shares within a display unit adds validity. All very good points, and I appreciate you all sharing those. Thanks so much for your time and input today. I learned a lot about the political advertising space and the different methods you all offer for candidates and agencies.

To learn more about Undertone’s capabilities, visit their website.

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