Context is king, but could it influence the election?

Consumers weigh in on how advertising will play a role in the upcoming election cycle

03/09 By IAS Team

When it comes to winning the heart of American voters, digital advertising has become increasingly influential. Our recent study discovered that 76% of consumers believe that online advertising will be important for determining the outcome of the 2020 election.

The 2016 election had a lasting effect. Looking back, Google noted that ahead of the last presidential election, consumers “watched more than 110 million hours of candidate- and issue-related content on YouTube. That’s 100X the amount of time it would take to watch all content ever aired on CNN, C-Span, MSNBC, and Fox News combined.” However, the prevalence of fake news and foreign interference in the 2016 election impacted advertising strategies and created mistrust among consumers.

With political advertising anticipated to reach up to $2.8B this year, the industry is preparing for the upcoming onslaught of election content. For example, Twitter has banned political advertisements altogether, while Facebook has exempted itself from political fact-checking as a whole. But where do consumers stand?

Last October, we surveyed online consumers across the United States, self-identified from both major political parties, as well as those who identify as independent. The results revealed that consumers of all political parties, across all platforms, have strong opinions about political advertising in the upcoming election.

1. Consumers are digitally engaged, with young adults focused on social

According to respondents, digital publishers remain the most frequently used, but other ‘emerging mediums’ are providing new channels for political content consumption. In the evolving digital environment, young adults (18-29 years) identified as the only age group that prefers social media overall.

  • Digital publishers (33%), social media (23%), connected TV (16%), digital video (12%)
  • Young adults use social media as the preferred medium for consuming news (37%)

Participants were also asked to identify whether they consider themselves “engaged” in politics


2. Democrats are worried about foreign influence; everyone is worried about ad fraud and fake news

We also asked consumers to weigh in on their concerns about potential threats to the election. A vast majority of consumers (80%) are concerned about the proliferation of misinformation, but potentially more telling: 51% are specifically worried about political ad fraud. Fears have also evolved to reflect technological advancements, as 72% of consumers even expressed concern about the use of deep fake technology, which refers to synthetic media in which a person in an existing image or video is replaced with someone else’s likeness.

Some issues proved to have varying responses along party lines. After the 2016 election, concerns about foreign interference became a highly partisan issue.

3. Quality of advertising environments can affect engagement and perception

At IAS, we’ve been closely studying how the quality of advertising environments can influence consumer perception of an advertisement and even a brand. In The Halo Effect and its follow up The Ripple Effect, 62% of U.S. consumers responded that they would stop using a brand that appeared next to low quality content.

When asked if they would hold a candidate or party accountable for the type of content their ads appear next to, Democrats were most likely to hold candidates accountable (56%), followed by Independents, (52%) and then Republicans (47%)

In our study, voters view political candidates similarly to brands: 41% of people said they would be less favorable toward candidates whose ads appeared in environments that are considered low quality. Democrats (47%), Independents (39%), and Republicans (36%) agree that a candidate would be less favorable if their ads were found in a poor environment.*

Political campaigns depend on votes and donations, and even a small decrease in either can dramatically affect the outcome of a race. More than a third of all participants agreed they would disengage from campaigns after seeing a candidate’s ads in poor environments.


Now more than ever: Context matters.

In the upcoming election, the consumption of political content will reach an all-time high, making digital advertising strategies more influential than ever. While advertising spend has bounced back since 2016, the emergence of fake news and foreign influence in the last election, along with the development of new technologies like deep fakes, continue to impact consumer confidence. Across the board, participants in our study agreed fake news is worth looking out for, and the quality of advertising environments is paramount—so much that poor quality environments could impact their willingness to support or donate to candidates or parties. In other words, the context in which political messages appear impacts consumer perception of candidates to a degree that could influence the outcome of an election. Context may be king, but could it elect the next president?

Download our study to learn more.

*In our November 2019 political survey respondents were given terrorist content, violent content, gambling, explicit material as examples of low quality content.

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