The Evolution of Political Advertising: Cultivating Success with Creative Analysis

In 2008, presidential candidates spent $22.25 million on online political ads. By 2016, this figure had risen to $1.4 billion.

This growth didn’t happen overnight; it was partly fueled by the 2010 Citizens US Supreme Court Decision, which ruled that unions, corporations, and other groups could spend unlimited amounts of money on political advertising. This shift had a major effect on the conduct of political campaigns, as there were no longer any financial restrictions on online advertising. Donors could now exert much larger influence on the success of a political campaign.

However, the ability to wield such financial influence was not always available to big donors. In 2003, the Austin v. Michigan State Chamber of Commerce case led to a decision that corporations could be prohibited from using their treasury funds to make independent expenditures in connection with state elections. Since 2010, however, the lines have become less defined, and the industry continues to grow.

The growth of social media played a significant role in this change. In 2008, Facebook was still a private company. By 2016, it had gone public and had already acquired Instagram and WhatsApp as subsidiaries. As these platforms gained more users, political campaigns had new opportunities to advertise and target potential voters.

Young Americans spend a significant amount of time online, with platforms like TikTok, Snapchat, YouTube, and Meta reigning supreme. Successful political marketing campaigns have the potential to greatly influence upcoming elections by targeting the right audiences. They also provide the opportunity to build community around political movements through conversations, comments, and shares.

Traditionally, political ads were run through newspapers, television, radio, and even direct mail. While these remain meaningful ways to engage audiences, it’s not surprising that current political campaigns are focusing the bulk of their efforts online. Advertisers can now reach audiences across small towns, cities, and states, rather than being limited to a specific region.

Historically, however, political advertising has taken many forms.

According to a 2004 forum at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, MA, President Eisenhower was the first to use television as a way to advertise his political campaign to be the 34th president of the United States.

His ‘Ike for President’ ad was one of the most famous. It featured an animation with Uncle Sam, an elephant, the American people, and a lot of fanfare. It lasted for just 1 minute but its appeal was broad and effective, helping Eisenhower secure his victory over Democrat Adlai E. Stevenson in 1952.

Later in 1960, the Kennedy/Nixon race saw the beginnings of negative ads. Negative ads will deliberately say something negative about an opposing party or organization to achieve a positive result for the group running the ad.

John F. Kennedy’s campaign ran a video on American television that showed President Eisenhower at a press conference. At this event he was questioned about the big ideas that had been contributed by Richard Nixon during his time as Vice President. His response, “If you give me a week, I might think of one”.

Utilizing the clout of a past president was a stellar move for Kennedy. Running the ad gave a nice boost to Kennedy’s campaign and was likely a positive factor that led to his win against Richard Nixon in 1960. Negative ads are far more common today. Especially with the advent of the internet and social media, it’s become much easier to run ads towards targeted audiences.

Another famous example of a negative ad was George W. Bush’s windsurfing ad against John Kerry in 2004. Just 30 seconds long, the ad featured Democratic nominee windsurfing back and forth while text on the screen illustrated how often Kerry goes back and forth on issues. It was incredibly effective and was likely a contributing factor to Bush’s narrow win that year.

Just a few years later, the first President to successfully employ social media for their political campaign was Barack Obama in 2008.

According to The Social Pulpit from Edelman Research, “A major success factor for Obama’s victory was how Obama’s campaign used social media and technology as an integral part of its strategy, to raise money, and, importantly, to develop a groundswell of empowered volunteers who felt they could make a difference.”.

President Obama’s online presence was much stronger than that of his opponent, John McCain. His timing couldn’t have been better, as social media platforms were growing in popularity and more Americans were interacting online. He leveraged the new technologies available at the time and built a robust advertising scheme using platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and MySpace. Currently, Meta’s combined platforms (Facebook, Instagram, etc.) account for more than a fifth of total US digital ad spend. While they were a growing phenomenon during Obama’s run in 2008, they are now some of the biggest driving forces in today’s internet economy.

With so much influence, changes in Meta’s policies ultimately have large effects on the industry. They’ve recently made such a shift that is leading to a lot of questions.

In regards to advertising on their platforms: Meta will no longer recommend political content proactively to users on Threads and Instagram.

Their reasoning is that users should have better control over the type of content they see. In theory, users can still see posts recommended to them but will “have a control to see them”. They are working to give generally more control in their recommendation systems so people can connect with what they deem to be relevant.

This announcement has caused some major shake-ups in the world of political advertising. What qualifies as “political content” is extremely vague, leaving both advertisers and audiences confused and unsure how to proceed. The 2024 US election cycle is already underway, and in combination with the Olympics and other sporting events this year, ad spend is unlikely to slow down anytime soon.

According to a Pew Research Center study released in November, 16% of American adults regularly get their news from Instagram.

In an effort to define what ads will be acceptable after this change, it’s likely that many advertisers will be testing a variety of ad creatives to see what works.

The medical field has particular regulations when it comes to advertising, and similar regulations may be on their way to the world of political advertising. While Meta’s long-term intentions are unclear, it’s evident that ad creatives need to be transparent and precise in their messaging if they are to succeed.

All things considered, vague and inaccurate ads don’t do much to help anyone. They negatively impact campaign metrics, with reduced click-through rates (CTR) and higher media costs. Moreover, they lack appeal for users who are seeking meaningful messaging that they can interact with.

Finding the right combination of visual and written attributes can be a challenging task. Advertisers may spend months seeking the perfect ad creative to outperform their competition.

To expedite this process, creative analysis combined with artificial intelligence is a necessary tool. Creative analysis involves employing machine learning to assess creative elements in advertisements and gauge their impact on viewer behavior.

By analyzing vast amounts of data, it becomes possible to identify the relationship between specific creative attributes and their performance in conjunction with one another. Everything from image tone to background color to call to action can be analyzed, leading to specific recommendations for optimizing an ad campaign.

In the case of Meta’s new policy shift on political content, AI and creative analysis can help political advertisers move forward confidently. Creative analysis can be implemented at any point during a campaign whether it be before, during, or after a campaign. Once the data has been analyzed, there are clear steps in how to proceed and improve.

Today we live in an age of huge opportunities for advertising. Utilizing advancing technologies, political campaigns can reach new markets and build momentum in ways that were never possible before. Through collecting and analyzing ad data, campaigns can have a massive impact on outcomes and opinions. 

Historically, radio, television, and social media were some of the biggest advancements in modern communication. They changed the way we interact with each other and created endless opportunities in advertising.

Today, creative analysis is the new technology. To build powerful and memorable campaigns, it can introduce the necessary clarity to make a big impact.

With the opportunity for bigger reach, better targeting, and more customization, also comes the possibility of getting lost in the noise. Political advertisers need to know what works and what doesn’t to make the most out of their campaign budgets. The quantitative data analyzed by creative analysis is ultimately what will be the deciding factor between a mediocre campaign and an optimized one.

Ads can have a big effect on elections. From Eisenhower to Obama, they’ve influenced voter turnout, party affiliation, and even public opinion. As we navigate the ever-evolving landscape of political advertising, it’s crucial to remain vigilant of how advancing technologies can have an impact. Upholding principles of transparency, accountability, and respect for privacy are all necessary. By staying informed and engaged, we can collectively shape the future of the advertising industry and ensure that it serves the interests of democracy. We must embrace the power of critical thinking and civic participation as we navigate this complex terrain together.