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2020 election confirmed free media is better than political ads

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  • The 2020 election shows the value of traditional TV advertising is declining. Despite spending more on political ads than any election prior, neither the Democrats nor Republicans had much to show for it. 
  • Public content faces fiercer competition for audience attention than ever before.
  • In 2016, Trump earned almost $6 billion in free media coverage. Authenticity (or perceived authenticity) is the key to attracting attention and resonating with audiences.
  • Matt Terrill is a partner at Firehouse Strategies and served as the chief of staff on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

In the Kennedy era of the 1960s or the Reagan era of the 1980s, political television ads swayed millions of votes. They were the opinion programming of their time, attracting genuine attention from viewers. 

Things are different today. The value of traditional ads is coming under question as they rise in price and decline in effectiveness. If the 2016 election started the conversation about whether traditional paid media is worth the money, then the 2020 election could very well have finished it.

Approximately $8 billion was spent throughout the 2020 cycle on political ads — the most in history — but both sides have little to show for it. Democrats outspent Republicans nearly 2-to-1, yet the states where they spent the most seemed to yield the least results. 

Democrats outspent the GOP by a combined $116 million in the key Senate races of North Carolina, Iowa, South Carolina, and Kentucky, where many polls showed them leading. Republicans won all four races anyway.

At the presidential level, President-elect Joe Biden outspent President Donald Trump on TV by well over $200 million. In the final week of the election, Biden more than doubled Trump’s TV ad spending in Texas, Ohio, and Florida. In the same three states, Mike Bloomberg heaped on an additional $100 million in TV ads backing Biden. Trump won all three states anyway.

Despite the Biden campaign winning the election, it is difficult to argue that they got their money’s worth on paid media. Even if TV ads gave them a crucial extra percentage point in key battleground states, can anyone really claim that $600 million in media was the best way to secure those votes? Is it possible there was a cheaper way? Or a free way?

Decline of paid political advertising

Those of us who worked on 2016 presidential campaigns learned the answers firsthand. While traditional candidates like Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio were spending millions on paid media, Trump barely spent at all. Instead he earned an earth-shaking $5.9 billion in free media coverage, more than every other candidate combined. In the first month of 2016 alone, Trump earned $400 million of free media, about what John McCain spent on his entire 2008 presidential campaign.

Trump’s authenticity (or perceived authenticity) and courting of controversy netted him a similar advantage in 2020. It allowed him to be outspent by Biden 2-to-1 and still defy polling by substantial margins and earn some 10 million more votes than in 2016. Anyone who takes away from a Biden victory that traditional paid media is back is missing the bigger picture.

What can other candidates, corporations, and brands learn from this cycle? 

They must learn that all of their content — paid, earned, or social — faces fiercer competition for audience attention than ever before. Money can help, but it isn’t what it once was. Authenticity is the real currency of this new era. Rather than the commercial breaks, the new battlefield is the media coverage between them, which can only be won through content that attracts attention and leads to genuine dialogue.

Brands across various sectors seem to be recognizing this new paradigm. National TV ad revenue declined more than 7% through September, even with the massive influx of political advertising. The decline was twice as large in the critical field of sports advertising. TV ad spending is expected to drop 11% for the year overall. In one telling example, the gaming industry’s paid TV expenditures dropped more than 30% in October from the month prior.

Whether these numbers signal enduring trends is yet to be seen. But the lessons of this past election should be clear: the return on investment from the old ways of advertising is collapsing. This is good news for most organizations because it levels the playing field. Getting your message out to the masses no longer requires spending big on manufactured content. If your message is authentic and it resonates, others will drive the content for you — in many cases, for free.

Matt Terrill is a partner at Firehouse Strategies and served as the chief of staff on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign.

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