Editor’s note: Jon Christens is director of communications at media agency Kelly Scott Madison (KSM), Chicago. Elizabeth Kalmbach is the firm’s vice president, group media director, and Darrell Drake is vice president, research. This article is an edited excerpt from KSM’s winter 2016 issue of State of Media.  

This is the second of a two-part article looking at how political marketing influences voters. In Part I we looked at political marketing and the most influential sources of information for voters, as well as a breakdown of voter research behaviors by party affiliation and age group. Today we will look at the power and purpose of political advertising as well as the public view of political ads on new, online formats. 

Power and purpose of political ads 

Asking audiences about their overall interest levels in ads can produce some fairly jaded responses. Sure, they understand how important this revenue stream is to content providers but when asked directly about how well some ads hold their attention, a range of emotions from indifference to bitterness usually appear. Political advertising is no different, with a majority of respondents expressing slightly more disinterest than interest in the ads. As shown in Figure 1, 58 percent of adults claim more impassivity than engagement. But when digging deeper into age breakouts, unexpected data emerges.

Millennials differed somewhat significantly here from the responses of other age groups, with 48 percent claiming that they are either extremely, very or somewhat interested in political ads. Place that number against just 38 percent of Baby Boomers and 40 percent of Gen Xers who said the same and the gap is put into perspective. So if Millennials say they’re more interested in political ads than other age groups, why do so many sources claim that members of this generation are disengaged from the political process?

With the rise of social media, younger generations have increasingly demanded more authenticity from brands and corporations. So why are some of the same and often inauthentic creative tactics still being used by political candidates looking to win over the hearts and minds of young voters? A recent article by Elizabeth Wilner in the Cook Political Report seems to chalk the status quo up to a combination of unimaginative creatives, repetitive super PACs, quadrennial hiatuses between campaigns and ad regulations that all drive this complacency and the continuation of formulaic spots. Essentially the big takeaway is that if politicians want to drive higher voter engagement then more money needs to be spent on the creative to develop an authentic brand behind the message.

But turning the tables to focus on candidates who target older audiences also presents many of the same issues. The 62 percent of Baby Boomers who feel disinterested in political ads could very well be fueled by similar complaints about formulaic ad fatigue. No better evidence of this exists than to look at the early Republican field and Jeb Bush’s single digits in most polls, even though his campaign spent more than $40 million on TV as of the close of 2015. Donald Trump had spent absolutely nothing on television during that same period. At the time of this writing he had recently launched his first TV spot, saying he’ll spend about $2 million per week on the format. True to his earned-media form, Trump is kept the message relevant to his most impassioned audience by starting off with a spot focusing on immigration and terrorism. While it remains to be seen how this kind of polarizing approach will work, it is most certainly authentic to his brand.

Over on the less-crowded Democratic side, somewhat similar patterns can be found in regard to media spend habits between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. While both are spending far less than Republicans, at the time of this writing Clinton has thrown about $14 million at TV since August 2015. Sanders, on the other hand, first kicked off his TV-spend three months later than Clinton, and has spent around $9.7 million since November 2015. His poll numbers have since notched up considerably, creating an unexpectedly tight race. He also faces some fairly large issues with polarization among liberals but so far his strategy is gaining pace. Clearly, all four cases indicate that while TV is still more important than ever throughout the campaigning process, prioritizing a solid brand presence through earned and other organic grassroots formats is absolutely crucial.

In terms of how the public views the purpose of political advertising, some sentiments echoing the aforementioned findings are present. “Getting a candidate’s name out” was listed as the most popular purpose of political ads, netting 38 percent of total adults and 42, 32 and 39 percent of Democrats, independents and Republicans, respectively. “Criticizing the competition” was the second most popular reason, with “altering perceptions of a candidate,” “make issues more widely known” and “drive the public to research more” rounding out the bottom three rankings. Independents were also more likely to see attack ads as a top purpose of these spots, with 27 percent feeling this way compared to just 18 percent of Republicans and 19 percent of Democrats.

Put those numbers up against respondents’ feelings about candidates after viewing various types of political ads and a storyline begins to emerge. By far the most popular type of political ad for all age groups and political allegiances are issue-based ads. This ad-focus made 67 percent of total adults feel generally “more positive” about a candidate after exposure. Digging into party breakouts, 73 percent of Republicans and 72 percent of Democrats had the same positive feelings. Family-focused or “humanizing” ads drew just 42 percent of all respondents to claim more positive feelings about candidates after exposure. Attack ads, on the other hand, generated some strong responses on the opposite end of the spectrum, with 64 percent of all respondents feeling negative about candidates after viewing.

The lower percentage of positive feedback toward humanizing ads among all adults may seem contradictory to the notion that audiences want more authenticity but keep in mind that the call to action is to improve inauthentic and outdated creative rather than its underlying intentions. In fact, when focusing in on Millennials for this question, 51 percent actually felt more positive about a candidate after viewing “humanization” ads. This is exactly why more audiences, especially younger ones, are feeling drawn to social media and other online sources when vetting candidates. They’re seeking more information on who a person really is, rather than who their formulaic and stiff family-ad says they are.

New formats rising?

If social media continues its ascension of importance in the role of politics over the coming years, it is important to look at how the public views advertising on this format. According to KSM’s survey (Figure 2), social media ads were listed as the most attention-getting  source of content when comparing the most common forms of online advertising. Out of all adults surveyed, 34 percent placed social media ads at the top of this list, with 29 percent feeling similarly for online video ads. E-mail marketing and banner ads took the number three and four spots, respectively. This breakout was true for all party affiliations except when looking at Republicans, who had 29 percent listing online video ads as their most attention-getting online format and 26 percent choosing social media ads.

Age breakouts also present an interesting difference from the overall picture: Gen X displayed the highest percentage of preference for social media ads at 42 percent, with Millennials close behind at 40 percent. Compare this to Baby Boomers’ top pick of e-mail marketing at 26 percent and a tie of 25 percent who feel political social and online video ads are memorable. Again, while a solid organic social strategy should be used as a foundation for any paid efforts, it is still important to note that Gen Xers are just as swayed as Millennials by political social ads. This reinforces the notion that political marketers should devote additional budget to creative concerns, especially when delving into online formats. The more key audiences a campaign has available to target on any given format, the more investment teams should earmark toward developing unique messaging that truly resonates with each group.

What does the public think the future holds for these online formats? While a majority across all age groups and party divides feel that online political advertising (such as banner, video, social media and e-mail marketing ads) will have no change in impact for this upcoming election, more respondents think these formats will increase their effectiveness  rather than decrease, as shown in Figure 3. Overall, 31 percent of respondents think these online ads will have “much” or “somewhat” more of an impact, with just 16 percent saying “somewhat” or “much” less of an impact. Millennials again show higher percentages in favor of social impact, with 43 percent thinking the effect will be greater in this upcoming election.

From an organic standpoint, overall interactions with social political content are also up when compared to reported activity from past elections. An 11 percent increase in social interactions (e.g., likes, shares and comments) for this upcoming election was reported by all respondents. Democrats claimed the strongest levels of interaction across party groups, with a quarter claiming they’ve already interacted with political content for the 2016 election. Even though social interaction levels for independents and Republicans showed lower percentages overall, both groups are reporting increased activity compared to past elections, with a 6 percent and 29 percent increase, respectively.