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As U.S. election looms, political advertisers shift focus to CTV

The statue of liberty takes a mirror selfie obscuring its face.

Illustration by Reagan Hicks / Shutterstock / The Current

As the November election nears, candidates are increasing their advertising to earn those votes. But while social media strategies and U.S. political ad spend might have been a strategic focus during the 2016 and the 2020 elections, experts have warned of the threat of misinformation during this election cycle and Americans’ growing mistrust of social media. That's giving rise to alternative advertising avenues like connected TV (CTV).

“In terms of [total] political ad spending, a lot more is going to CTV than last time around in a big way,” says Paul Verna, principal analyst at Insider Intelligence. “Also, in terms of all ad spending, along with retail media, CTV is the fastest-growing channel that we track.”

A recent report from Insider Intelligence found that political advertising is estimated to reach $12 billion this election cycle — though the overall growth in the political sector is below the overall rate of total media ad spend for 2024. CTV political ad spend growth in particular is projected to increase by roughly 506% between 2020 and 2024, and make up 45% of digital advertising spend this election cycle. During the 2020 cycle, CTV political ad spend only made up 19%.

“What I’m hearing from agencies is a big hesitation around user-generated content, specifically how things are trending in the social platforms,” says Robin Porter, head of political for digital advertising company LoopMe. “Not knowing where’s it going to fall into — what kind of content — that’s become a big concern.”

There’s good reason: the public may be more open to CTV ads than to the ones they see on social media. A LoopMe survey from December saw that there was a doubling of receptivity to political ads when the person spent the most time on that digital medium, which includes streaming, web browsing and podcasts. However, when it came to people who spent the most time on certain social media platforms, the opposite effect was observed. Political campaigns and agencies are taking note.

“There’s not the receptivity within the social channels that there used to be, and especially in 2008 with Obama, when it was this innovative new frontier,” Porter explains. “The opposite effect is taking place. I will say that’s one of the least-talked-about platforms when the discussion is around spend allocation. CTV is the highest-discussed platform and conversation around strategy, finding audiences in that space.”

It may have to do with Americans becoming skeptical about what they see on social media. Only 44% of Americans find social media a trustworthy source of information, according to a February 2024 Harris Poll. The CAIO Institute found about 3 out of 4 Americans don’t trust social media companies to make unbiased content-moderation decisions.

But advancements in AI tools have also made it easier to make deepfakes and disseminate misinformation. Many platforms have instituted restrictions around AI-generated content as well as labels that indicate if content uses AI. Some social platforms are also restricting when political ads can run: for instance, Meta blocking new political ads the week leading up to the November elections. Snap reviews all political ads on a case-by-case basis, and has put further restrictions on them. Political ads are banned from TikTok. Meta did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Snap and TikTok declined to comment.

Still, CTV can alleviate those concerns, Porter added. LoopMe helps campaigns target the right audiences on digital advertising platforms.

“There is scale there, but there’s also safety in the programming and knowing where that ad […] is going to fall within the programming,” she says. “It’s fixed programming.”

Still, many — like Insider Intelligence’s Verna — believe the social media platforms haven’t done enough to prevent political bad actors. For example, Mozilla Research found it used to be easy to get around TikTok’s political ad ban, though the study focused on 2021 political advertising blocks. TikTok’s policies have evolved since then.

“We’re in a situation where social media just doesn’t have the tools or even really the will to truly snuff out all of this misinformation, disinformation, toxic content,” Insider Intelligence’s Verna says.

While political media buyers are engaging in the more strategic capabilities of CTV, old habits die hard. It's still true, per Pew Research, that many older voters are likely watching on cable. And though the lion's share of political ad spend is still traditional media, that equation is changing quickly with digital ad dollars surging. Each election cycle shows the attrition of linear as digital spend grows to allow that broader reach.

“[With] CTV, you are going to be able to reach a lot of younger voters,” Verna says.

But as more people cut the cord and more digitally native citizens become voters, the growth of political digital advertising — especially CTV — may only be inevitable for future elections. Seventy percent of adults ages 55 to 64 reported watching digital video content on a connected device in 2022, and half of adults 65 and older said the same, according to MNTN Research.

“With CTV, you can do a lot more to pinpoint who that potentially persuadable voter might be, and just get more strategic about trying to motivate those voters,” Verna says.