Playing Politics: Media Planning in an Election Year

There is no doubting the disruptive impact political advertising has on media schedules, especially in the area of television and video. Spending by candidates, parties and outside special interest groups will total into the billions across all local, state and federal election cycles. In order to successfully navigate the political season as a non-political advertiser, we’d like to provide media planning and buying insights as well as “rules of the road” that will help you traverse this minefield.

First, let’s separate fact from fiction:

Stations are required to accept political advertising. The rules of advertising require that stations must accept ads from candidates for federal office. Stations do not have to accept state or local candidates’ advertising. However, if a station accepts advertising from a state or local candidate, it must also accept advertising from that candidate’s opponent, whether from the same party in a primary or a different party in a general election.

Candidates always get the lowest rates. Federal candidates (and when stations choose to accept advertising from state and local candidates, the same considerations tend to apply) are entitled to the lowest unit rates (LUR) in the “class” of time they purchase (and there can be many classes). This guarantee, however, is only during the political protection period or political window, defined as 45 days prior to a primary and 60 pays prior to a general election.

Stations are permitted to establish and define their own reasonable classes of time. For television, they may be:

  • Fixed or fixed position – a spot that will be guaranteed to run on a particular date at a specific time.
  • Rotation – a spot which is to run within a specified portion of the broadcast day.
  • Run-of-schedule – a preemptible spot that may be scheduled at any time at the discretion of the station and may be preempted without prior notice to the advertiser.
  • Non-preemptible – a spot that is not subject to pre-emption during any particular daypart, program or time period. In contrast to a fixed or fixed position spot, a non-preemptible spot may run any time during the designated program, daypart or time period.
  • Preemptible with notice – a spot that may be preempted only after notice is provided to the advertiser. Frequently, the advertiser will be given the opportunity to pay a higher rate to avoid pre-emption.
  • Preemptible without notice – a spot that may be preempted without notice to the advertiser.

Whatever rate is on the books as the lowest for that class is the rate the candidate is entitled to pay – if the station has inventory to sell in that class.

Outside the political protection period, each station is obligated to charge the candidate no more than what it would charge a commercial advertiser for comparable time. In other words, political advertisers must not be charged more than anyone else for the same frequency, class, and amount of time in the same period.

Political ads can’t be preempted by other advertisers. Well, actually, they can be. A political advertiser who has purchased a lower class spot, such preemptible without notice, can be preempted by an advertiser who has to get on the air and is willing to pay a higher next class rate, such as preemptible with notice.  Conversely, a political candidate will likely not be preempted for another advertiser in the same class. But understand stations do not like to pre-empt political schedules.

If I purchase early, I won’t be preempted. Buying upfront doesn’t make a difference when it comes to pre-emption. It’s the rate that matters, and first-in-last-out doesn’t really hold. However, buying ahead of political purchases may help to lessen rate increases.

Political Action Committees (PACs) and party committees are given the same consideration as candidates. PACs and party committees are not covered by lowest unit rate or pre-emptibility rules or considerations. In fact, stations can charge whatever they want and have in the past. But don’t blame the stations. PACs oftentimes seem to throw money at the stations and have become real windfalls that enhance station revenues.

So what is the non-political advertiser to do?

Get to know your market from a political lens to determine the likely level of volatility. Locally, will there be highly contested races that will place heavy demand on television air time? Will yours be a battleground state attracting big political dollars in midterm or presidential races?

Become familiar with your political calendar. When are the various primary, run-off and general election dates for your target markets? These will determine the political protection periods when LURs will prevail, and media inventory and rates will be adversely affected.

If you can avoid media activity, especially television, during these times without any negative impact to your business, stay away from the political window. However, many advertisers do not have the luxury of waiting it out. What you can do is anticipate. Work with your advertising agency as you budget for a political year, planning on the fact that some of your television placement may be preempted with the need to pay higher rates to clear your schedule. Your agency can check with stations for what the increase percentage is projected to be and factor that in during the planning phase.  At the same time, your agency can be a good resource for formulating a media mix that compensates for preemptions during political protection periods by identifying “buy arounds.”

While political dollars may account for a large share of a television station’s revenue, it may not account for a corresponding share of available inventory. Stay away from political advertising hot spots such as news programming and prime access, a popular daypart for reaching older demos who are most-likely voters. However with the availability of more granular viewership data, television advertising has greatly evolved, and candidates are expected to take full advantage of the new data.  There will also be demand for younger skewing and Hispanic programming as candidates engage with these strategic audiences to get the vote out in larger numbers. This translates into greater impact across a broader swath of programming than the usual hot spots.

This is why we recommend you work  with your advertising agency who enjoys close ties with station representatives and has the ability to get an idea for preemptible levels and to identify best clearance options. You may even want to over-buy knowing that a certain percentage of your schedule will be bumped. Anticipate that you will have to pay higher rates during the political window. While increases typically range from an additional 12% – 18%, they can also be as high as +50% or more for some programming depending upon market conditions. Collaborate with your agency to determine upfront what your rate ceiling will be relative to return on investment. And know that your agency will maintain a constant pulse on your buy, to know when you’ll need to cancel on any overbought spots (but remember the non-cancel window of 2 – 3 weeks prior) or identify where you can make good on bumped spots.

Have a Plan B

If the television environment becomes overly pre-emptive or prohibitively expensive, your agency will assist in identifying alternate media channels that may not be as heavily impacted:

Local Cable Television – It’s not as though cable won’t receive its share of political advertising, but there are so many more cable networks than broadcast networks, thus greater available inventory. Just stay away from news networks, such as CNN, Headline News, Fox News and MSNBC that will be magnets for political advertisers. Utilize cable to supplement lost broadcast television weight due to pre-emption. Augment with DirecTV and dish placement to expand message reach.

Radio – While radio’s slice of the political ad pie is in the millions, its share of total political ad spend is down because of diversion of media dollars to digital. Which means radio will remain a viable broadcast alternative for advertisers who have to be on the air. Advantageously, this medium is less impacted by rate increases and schedule disruptions.

Outdoor – While outdoor is a popular medium for candidates, the good news is that there is such a thing as political pre-emption or protection periods. It just requires advance planning when there are avails. Secure a strategic outdoor showing made up of static and/or digital outdoor board locations to augment your media plan during anticipated disruption periods.

Database – Plan on reaching out to your own customer database during political protection periods to impulse response, whether it’s to promote in-store or online product sales, prompt concert or performance ticket sales, etc. Most likely, in the midst of the political season, your non-political message will offer a welcomed respite. And typically, a known customer is easier and less expensive to convert.

Newspaper – If your market supports a newspaper that continues to deliver circulation vitality, give consideration to this medium. In political years, you may see more attention to newspaper as voters turn to editorials and reporting for guidance. Think creatively. For example, consider a free-standing insert to zoned distribution, or conversely take advantage of the newspaper’s total market product. What about the newspaper’s website if it serves as a strong local portal?

Digital –  Take advantage of the advanced targeting options in digital, whether it’s online display or paid social, to reach out to your desired audience to impulse a call-to-action or drive traffic to your website. Look into digital video options as they have expanded, especially with Over-The-Top (OTT) and programmatic television having reached scale. Currently, for all age groups, one in five hours of video viewing is now spent streaming as a national average. This offers an additional video channel that, advantageously, is not subject to pre-emption or protection periods.

Not Only Surviving But Thriving In A Political Year

The key to surviving the political season as a non-political advertiser is to plan ahead, not only understanding that there will be disruption but expecting it. During political windows, rely less on television and plan on a more varied media mix. Budget for a political year knowing you’ll have to increase spend that will allow you to purchase at clearance levels.  But set a cap and work with your advertising agency to identify diversion media options. Be creative, not only in the media channels you’ll divert to but in your messaging. Count on the fact that there will be consumer fatigue with political commercials and offer a refreshing change-up in your communications. Ultimately, you will find that you not only survived an election year but that you’ve benefited from new media learnings that will inform your future media plans.