Over the past two decades, political polarization in the United States has grown considerably. In fact, Pew Research claims that Americans are now more polarized than they’ve been since the Truman administration. Why the growth in division, especially in more recent years? Some attribute the divide to the apparent political parochialism that many “consistently liberal” or “consistently conservative” voters consign themselves to in today’s technologically-siloed society. With an ever-expanding amount of information sources to consume, many can stick to reading only the media that tends to align with their views.


So if political polarization has been exacerbated over the past 60 years, how do marketers tap into those amplified passions in the most effective way possible? To answer that question KSM and ORC International once again teamed up to conduct a consumer survey, this time to see how the general public feels about political marketing. More than 1,000 U.S. adults, 18 years or older were asked questions ranging from their sentiments toward various types of political ads and media formats, to their thoughts on exposure timing and new targeting tactics.


When does the public start researching candidates?

To craft any marketing effort,

Read More

Over the past two decades, political polarization in the United States has grown considerably. In fact, Pew Research claims that Americans are now more polarized than they’ve been since the Truman administration. Why the growth in division, especially in more recent years? Some attribute the divide to the apparent political parochialism that many “consistently liberal” or “consistently conservative” voters consign themselves to in today’s technologically-siloed society. With an ever-expanding amount of information sources to consume, many can stick to reading only the media that tends to align with their views.


So if political polarization has been exacerbated over the past 60 years, how do marketers tap into those amplified passions in the most effective way possible? To answer that question KSM and ORC International once again teamed up to conduct a consumer survey, this time to see how the general public feels about political marketing. More than 1,000 U.S. adults, 18 years or older were asked questions ranging from their sentiments toward various types of political ads and media formats, to their thoughts on exposure timing and new targeting tactics.


When does the public start researching candidates?

To craft any marketing effort, one of the most logical places to begin the brainstorming process is with campaign timing. Understanding the flight dates helps shape key considerations regarding possible messaging and event alignment. In politics, the act of researching candidates and key issues is tied closely to the proximity of election days. However, when analyzing this behavior across party affiliations and age groups, some interesting differences arise.


Millennials will continue to be heavily prized by political candidates for their growing importance in upcoming elections, but the group is often criticized by some strategists as being disengaged with traditional political and media formats. Whether they deserve this backlash will be analyzed later in this report, but in regard to the timing of when certain groups begin researching political candidates, millennials surprisingly differ from some larger trends seen across other age groups.


When asked how early respondents begin researching presidential candidates, KSM’s political marketing survey uncovered that millennials are actually more likely than baby boomers to vet candidates very early on in the campaigning process. The difference is a statistically significant 38 percent of millennials who say they begin researching presidential candidates one year or more prior to an election, compared to 27 percent of baby boomers who do the same. Generation X nearly splits the difference at 31 percent. In other words, millennials are 1.4 times more likely than baby boomers to research candidates early on. In contrast, 35 percent of baby boomers (this group’s most popular answer) and 31 percent of Gen Xers research just three to 11 months prior.


What are the forces driving millennials to start analyzing the field early on, and baby boomers to hold off until the primaries really start moving into high gear? The casual observer could chalk this difference up to the relative inexperience of younger voters who may not realize that names change often during the typically yearlong process leading up to primaries and prior to a party naming their nominees. But it also shows that when compared to other generations, millennials are engaged early on in the rallying process and could mean they have more of a sense of involvement in the campaigning process from start to finish. This might especially ring true when looking at the overall engagement millennials have with politics on social media. It’s no secret that this age group is more open to interact with civic and political content on social networks. In fact, a Pew research study stated that 48 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds make the choice to further investigate political or social topics as a direct result of what they read on social networks, and 57 percent claim they “engage in political activity on social media and nowhere else.” Pair the relative ease and extremely low cost of creating and supporting social pages with the perception from millennials that social is a safe place to express oneself, and it makes logical sense to infer that many users begin their first campaign interactions on social well before

the primaries.


When it comes to research timing comparisons among party affiliations, the numbers also vary substantially. For instance, about one fifth of Republicans claim they begin the research process for midterm candidates between six to 11 months prior to that region’s respective Election Day. That group, representing the largest subset of Republicans when looking at midterm researching activity, was followed closely by the third-largest subset of 19 percent who claim they start vetting competitors between three to five months before Election Day. Compare this with midterm numbers for Democrats and independents, and some stark differences arise. The latter two groups claim they either don’t start their research process until a couple months prior to Election Day (17 percent for both Democrats and independents), or go as far as stating that they don’t research midterm candidates at all (25 percent of Democrats and 26 percent of independents). This data seems to indicate that Republicans place a greater importance on midterm elections when compared to members of the Democratic party or independents. A finding like this makes sense after thinking back to the past two midterms, when Republicans were focused on gaining control of both the House and Senate during Obama’s presidency.


Though for both presidential and midterm periods, a surprising finding appears when going back to respondents who claim they “usually know who [they’re] voting for without conducting extensive research.” Overall when looking at research timing for total adults 18 or older, the highest percentages came from those who claim they conduct no research prior to either presidential or midterm elections. A quarter of respondents marked this answer for midterm elections, and 23 percent did so for presidential. When breaking these answers down by party affiliation, 25 and 24 percent of Democrats don’t research prior to midterm and presidential elections respectively. For independents, the numbers were 26 and 22 percent for midterm and presidential elections respectively. All four of these subsets represented the largest percentage of respondents for their respective parties’ answers. Republicans on the other hand, while still having high percentages of non-researchers at 20 and 17 percent for midterm and presidential respectively, had other higher percentages for research period habits.


Is this a sign that nearly a quarter of both Democrats and independents feel they rely more upon emotion than research when voting? Or do these individuals simply have a stricter definition of “research” than other groups, and are possibly implying that they rely upon sources like political debates and word-of-mouth to form their voting decisions? While an exact answer to that question cannot be made based upon this survey’s data, political marketers should still make a note of key research period differences between the parties and age groups.


Most influential sources of information

Moving on to rank the most influential sources of information to voters, 73 percent of all respondents listed televised debates in their top three, 71 percent listed news reports and 62 percent listed friends or family. Theatrics and showmanship aside, findings to support the great importance of televised debates in the eyes of voters exist in numerous studies conducted in both the U.S. and U.K., and are often cited by political experts. A recent U.S. News & World Report article stated that televised debates are “one of the top sources of information for voters,” and a 2015 Panelbase survey claims that the big media outlets and debates often “led online conversations.” Political ads on the other hand, ranked near the bottom in terms of perceived influence for both total respondents and across all political party affiliations, which is to be expected. In general, when consumers are asked to choose the overall level of influence or trustworthiness between sponsored and non-sponsored content, non-sponsored content often ranks higher.


But when asking all respondents to focus in on ranking just the most effective advertising formats that influence voting behavior, television had the most support with 26 percent of all respondents ranking it as either extremely or very effective. This format was followed closely by print ads (newspaper or magazine) with 22 percent and social media ads with 19 percent of all respondents placing them in their top two most effective formats respectively. This data not only reinforces the importance of a solid cross-platform presence if the specific campaign is a good fit, but also emphasizes the need for creativity in these integrations. For instance, aligning a candidate’s social dialogue efforts with key debates and thinking of ways to generate spontaneous and shareable content (e.g., memes, GIFs, hashtags and reactionary posts) is absolutely essential.


Rankings in preferred ad formats across political affiliations mirrored practically all of the findings for total respondents. However, overall percentages showing influence rankings for Democrats across the top four “extremely or very effective” formats (TV, print, social media and online video ads) were higher when compared directly to those of independents and Republicans. Democrats averaged 5.25 percentage points higher overall in their rankings of the top four formats, and actually diverged from the other two parties by awarding the number five spot to outdoor ads instead of radio. Because outdoor includes ads on public transit, taxis, buildings and billboards, and urbanized areas have a higher concentration of these formats, it makes sense that liberals would claim outdoor as more influential than other party-affiliated respondents. After all, everything from voting behavior to a 2014 study from the Pew Research Center showing liberals’ preference for living in cities and conservatives’ for the opposite, can back up these findings. So what’s the biggest takeaway for marketers targeting liberal voters? Once again get creative, but this time with out-of-home efforts. For those honing in on conservatives and independents, TV and print are still the most effective tools followed in order by social, online video and radio ads.


Moving to age breakouts, a finding that seems to contradict much of the common rhetoric surrounding millennials presents itself again. Surprisingly, this group feels that TV ads are the most effective format for politics with 38 percent stating so, followed closely at 35 percent by social media ads. Online video, print and radio ads at 30, 29 and 25 percent respectively rounded out the top five for this group. Clearly, this throws some water in the face of those who say millennials are not tapped in to traditional media sources, and are only engaged with online formats when it comes to politics. Data from one of Nielsen’s latest media consumption report backs this up by stating that 78 percent of young voters (18 to 34) watched broadcast TV in the past week. Even more millennial myth-busting arose from data regarding overall interest levels in political advertising.


Power and purpose of political advertising

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 indifference to sometimes bitter emotions usually appears. Political advertising is no different in this respect, with a majority of respondents both overall and across party affiliations expressing slightly more disinterest than interest in these ads. The numbers for total adults break out to 58 percent who claim more impassivity than engagement. But when digging deeper into age breakouts, unexpected data emerges.


Millennials again 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 with the political process? Well, the answer may lie in the actual content.


With the rise of social media, younger generations have increasingly demanded more authenticity from brands and corporations. Why then 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 appearing 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 continuation of formulaic spots. Essentially the big takeaway is if politicians want to drive higher voter engagement then more money needs to be spent on the creative and developing 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 current Republican field and notice Jeb Bush sitting single digits in most polls, even though his campaign has spent more than $40 million on TV as of the close of 2015. Trump, the current Republican front-runner, had spent absolutely nothing on television during that same period. He only just 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 keeping the message relevant to his most impassioned audience by starting the format off with a spot focusing on immigration and terrorism. While it remains to be seen how this kind of polarizing approach will work throughout the rest of the primaries, 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 in the less-congested field are understandably spending far less than Republicans, Clinton has still 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 to-date has spent around $9.7 million since November 2015. His poll numbers have since notched up considerably, creating an unexpectedly tight race for the early primary states. 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 first 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 chosen, 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 those ads.


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 just millennials for this question, a majority (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 will only continue its ascension of importance in the role of politics over the coming years, then how does the public view advertising on this format? According to KSM’s survey, 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. Email 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 Xers 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 email 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’s still important to note that Gen Xers are just as, if not more 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 towards 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 email marketing ads) will have no change in impact for this upcoming election, more respondents think these formats will increase their effectiveness rather than decrease. 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. And what should come as no surprise at this point is that 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, 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.


Summary of Findings

With data supporting the importance of traditional formats like TV paired with emerging social activity, and the increasing call for candidate authenticity, a clear challenge is being sent to political marketers for them to up their game in both creative executions and brand building.

Best political ad formats overall: Television advertising is the most effective in influencing voting behavior, followed by print and social media. In all types of political marketing, democrats are more likely to be swayed by political ads than those with other party affiliations. In particular, they are more likely to be influenced by outdoor ads (public transit, billboard, building, etc.), which would make sense given the higher concentration of liberals in urban areas.


Branding and strong creative are the foundation behind successful campaigns: While it may seem obvious that branding a candidate is a key first step, the current landscape has shown that some strategists are consigning this aspect to a secondary role. Formulaic creative and a lack of initial positioning through earned media and organic channels will not end well for most. Just like today’s consumers, modern voters are increasingly demanding authenticity from the campaigns they choose to interact with. Those who do this well through strong media relations, organic online presence and dynamic creative will position themselves above the rest.


Young voters are interested and engaged with political messaging: Though voter turnout may be low in comparison to other age groups, millennials are the most interested age group when it comes to political advertising (48 percent claim some level of interest, compared to 40 percent of Gen X and 38 percent of baby boomers). Marketers need to look no further than Barack Obama’s 2008 run to know that campaigns which tap into this interest with authentic and targeted messaging will drive these voters to the booths.


Young voters also start researching candidates earlier than other groups: Millennials begin researching candidates one year or more prior to a presidential election, which is more than any other age group, with 38 percent claiming they do so. This percentage is 40 percent higher than the 27 percent of baby boomers who claimed the same activity. Millennials also have a higher “one year or more” research-timing percentage for midterm elections, coming in at a rate that was 78 percent higher than Gen Xers or baby boomers. Clearly, this signals that political marketers should begin engaging young audiences through organic means such as social, blogs and online outlets early on to provide an engaging foundation well before the bulk of ad spend revs up.


Millennials influenced most through TV? In political advertising, traditional formats work in tandem with online: In what may come as a surprise to some, 38 percent of millennials listed television as the most effective ad format for influencing their voting behavior. Compare this to just 19 percent of baby boomers who said the same. But the second most influential ad format for millennials should come as no surprise: social media captured 35 percent of their vote. Cross-platform messaging is essential in targeting this group, but this data shows that television should still play a key role.


Televised debates, news media and word-of-mouth are still the most influential sources to voters overall: Across all respondents, 73 percent ranked televised debates in their top three most influential sources for gathering information on candidates, with 71 percent doing the same for “news/media reports” and 62 percent for word-of-mouth from friends or family.


Nearly a quarter of voters claim they usually know who they’re voting for without research: Across all respondents 18 or older, 25 percent for midterm elections and 23 percent for presidential claimed they usually don’t conduct research prior to voting. These responses represented the highest answer percentages overall, and were driven primarily by democratic and independent voters. So do these respondents feel they rely more upon emotion than research when voting? Or do they simply look to sources like political debates and word-of-mouth to form their voting decisions, and don’t consider this to be “active” research?


Voters care most about issues when watching ads: Issue-based advertising left more respondents feeling positive about candidates (67 percent) than negative (7 percent). This topic also beat out “personalization/humanization ads” and attack ads to reign as the most preferred subject matter for political advertising. Attack ads left a majority (64 percent) of respondents feeling negative about a candidate post-viewing.


Rise of new formats: Compared to the 2012 presidential election, about a third of respondents believe online political ads will have more of an impact on their voting behavior in this year’s election. Slightly more respondents overall are interacting with political ads on social media for this year’s election when compared to past elections. Democrats represent the group most responsive to political ads on social media, and a quarter of this group is already reporting interaction (likes, shares, comments, etc.) with ads involving the 2016 election.


*Data reflects an accurate representation of the total U.S. population aged 18 and older, with completed interviews being weighted by five variables to ensure this objective. Full Methodology available upon request.