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Political Advertising|By Elizabeth Wilner, November 4, 2013

GRPs aren’t the end all, be all anymore. Elizabeth Wilner’s biweekly column is now a weekly compilation of news and analysis covering the fast-growing junction of advertising, Big Data and politics. Thanks in advance for your tips, comments and gentle critiques: elizabeth.wilner@kantar.com.

An under-noticed fact of the Virginia races being decided today: the use in advertising of women’s health issues ranging from abortion, birth control and transvaginal probes (it is Virginia, after all) to sex trafficking and violence against women.

In the governor’s race, the Democratic ad that aired most often was nominee Terry McAuliffe’s own spot accusing GOP opponent Ken Cuccinelli of wanting Virginia to have “among the most extreme divorce laws in America,” in which “a mom trying to get out of a bad marriage over her husband’s objections could only get divorced if she could prove adultery, or physical abuse, or her spouse had abandoned her or was sentenced to jail.” (See below for stats on this ad.)

And as of November 3, 16% of all Democratic-sponsored commercial occurrences in the race mentioned abortion. This is a lower percentage than in 2009 (21%), but the occurrence count is actually higher: 3,078 to 5,641.

While the governor’s race is Virginia’s—and the nation’s—highest-profile contest this year, Democrats used these issues in attack ads against not only Cuccinelli but Republican candidates all the way down the ballot. Contrary to the softer approach of President Obama’s 2012 campaign ads featuring women talking to camera about Mitt Romney’s position on abortion, many of these ads deploy hard-hitting narration and even stark images of birth control pills and an ultrasound instrument to jar and ick voters into seeing these issues as symbols of unwanted government intrusion. “Why is Ken Cuccinelli interfering in our private lives?” asked the McAuliffe ad mentioned above.

“You have no idea how uncomfortable talking about [vaginal probes] in a men’s focus group is,” says one Democratic pollster who worked in the state this fall. That said, or maybe because of it, he notes that this issue bucket was the strongest-testing message with both men and women voters, though stronger overall with women.

Sure, the demographics of this once Southern, now swing state have changed in recent years, but that doesn’t make Democrats’ top-to-bottom advertising effort any less striking. These attack ads were sponsored not just by pro-choice groups but also by candidates. Several ads attacked either the entire top of the GOP’s ticket, or just Cuccinelli paired with attorney general nominee Mark Obenshain. Several Democratic candidates for delegate made abortion and/or birth control an issue in a majority of their TV spots. Democrats clearly felt that the backgrounds of the Republicans on the ballot handed them an opportunity to wallop the GOP with these issues at every level.

Of course, vaginal probes aren’t a topical issue in every state, and our pollster friend says that even in Virginia, the issue may have lost resonance as Election Day loomed, at least in his firm’s research. But other issues in the women’s health bucket that he says tested well in Virginia, such as violence against women, are more widespread concerns that may inspire a similar approach to advertising in 2014.

More ad stats and facts on the Virginia governor’s race, crunched by Mitchell West at Kantar Media CMAG, as of Sunday, November 3*:

Number of ad occurrences (i.e., spot count): 34,278 D, 24,616 R. That’s 57% D, 41% R, plus 2% Libertarian.

Number of TV ad sponsors: 7 D, 10 R.

Democratic ad that aired most often: “2008: Ken Cuccinelli writes a bill to give Virginia among the most extreme divorce laws in America. If Cuccinelli had it his way, a mom trying to get out of a bad marriage over her husband’s objections could only get divorced if she could prove adultery, or physical abuse, or her spouse had abandoned her or was sentenced to jail. Why is Ken Cuccinelli interfering in our private lives?” (Spot count: 2,127; estimated spend: $1.8 million)

Republican ad that aired most often: “[Narrator:] Terry McAuliffe built a factory in China. Why not Virginia? [McAuliffe:] ‘I wanted to put the plants here in Virginia but unfortunately, for whatever reason, Virginia did not bid on the car manufacturing facility.’ [Narrator:] Virginia smelled a rat. State officials under Democrat Governor Kaine likened McAuliffe’s factory financing to a visa-for-sale scheme with potential national security implications. Now, federal investigations. Using political connections for preferential treatment? Selling visas to wealthy Chinese investors? Terry McAuliffe: a bad deal for Virginia.” (Spot count: 2,636; estimated spend: $1.3 million)

Top two Democratic program genres by spot count: local news (14,715), followed by talk (5,592)

Top two Republican program genres by spot count: local news (10,989), followed by talk (4,324)

Top two Democratic genres by estimated spending: local news ($6.7 million), followed by news forum/interview/varied format ($2.1 million)

Top two Republican genres by estimated spending: local news ($4.6 million), followed by news forum/interview/varied format ($975,000)

*While On Points is aggregating spots and dollars across media markets to present a quick snapshot of the advertising in this race, it’s not a practice we’d endorse for serious analysis because it hides potentially key differences in spot counts and spending from market to market.

The CEO of the world’s largest advertising and communications company, WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell (On Points’ big, big boss), told the Wall Street Journal last week that corporate CEOs are lit up—“incandescent,” Sorrell said—about the NSA’s surveillance activities because of possible fallout for the collection of the Big Data advertisers increasingly rely on for targeting purposes.

Corporate advertisers aren’t the only ones whose efforts could be curbed by an increasingly pro-privacy, surveillance-skittish environment. Now that political advertisers are merging data about people’s purchasing, online and past voting behavior to better target their ads, their work is subject to laws and public sentiment about privacy—with the latter being goosed by a hyper-sensitive news media. “The number of articles you see about privacy are at a level never seen before,” says Brooks Dobbs, chief privacy officer of WPP’s KBM Group.

Tech companies already are rolling out new privacy-friendly products and marketing campaigns. (Including against each other: “Is Google breaking wiretap laws when they read your Gmail?” asks Microsoft in its famous “Scroogled” ad campaign against its arch rival.)

While these efforts may ease consumers’ and regulators’ minds, they also may have the effect of making political targeters’ jobs more difficult. New technological tools that help protect people’s identities, which Dobbs notes are often set up as default options, are likely to curb digital advertisers’ efforts. One by one, the big web browsers are turning off cookies. The slow extinction of cookies compounds the already growing challenge digital advertisers face in ascertaining whether the voter they’re messaging to today is the same voter they’ll try messaging to tomorrow. Now that people own smartphones, tablets and laptops, targeting ads to the same pair of eyes across all these devices is getting tougher.

“The tools we’ve always used to record this information and maintain it are going away,” says Dobbs, who points to movements of all four major browsers to possibly limit third-party cookies, the rise of in-private browsing, and increasing use of ad blocking technologies. Also, new “Do Not Track” signals, which can be introduced into people’s online routines through a variety of sources, may also affect what can be collected and stored.

The biggest risk to the gathering of consumer purchasing behavior, on the other hand, is probably PR fallout from high-profile misadventures in Big Data. The NSA’s lingering Edward Snowden problem may be the biggest of all. But in 2012 came the revelation that Target, using its own data, figured out a teenage girl was pregnant before her father did; the irate dad showed up at a Target to complain about the coupons for baby gear that were arriving in the mail. Last week, tech journalist Adam Penenberg wrote a chilling account of how he challenged some hackers to investigate him and see what they could find out. The answer: just about everything.

Just because the Obama campaign didn’t commit any privacy fails in 2012 doesn’t mean some campaign won’t in the near future. Analytics experts may believe that compliance with privacy laws is baked into the data they buy and that the burden is on the data vendors to comply, not on them. That would be a naïve assumption given how quickly the Big Data universe is evolving, how fast campaigns move, and their single-minded emphasis on the conclusions drawn from the data.

Of all the types of data an advertising or political campaign is likely to use, television viewership data is the most secure and the least invasive, says Ellen Dudar, co-founder of FourthWall Media, which profiles TV viewing behavior. Not only does the regulated TV industry understand its stewardship responsibilities; it specifically restricts the use of personal information and relies on other techniques to describe audiences and target them with the right messages.

Other, newer sources of data may not come with the same privacy safeguards. When you opt in for a mobile app and keep it running, who knows what you’re really opting in for? Also, vendors of these data may not be as used to ensuring privacy from start to finish. And many campaign analytics experts themselves come from the online world where the implicit pact between providers and users is free products in exchange for the amassed personal information.

Anyone who works with Big Data emphasizes the conclusions drawn from the data over the process itself. As Dobbs suggests, it can be difficult to tell from the conclusions what the actual sources of data were. For political targeters working at hyperspeed, that also can make it difficult to identify the point where the privacy line was crossed, either legally or in the court of public opinion. The fact that the line itself moves based on developments and sentiment can make it tough for a political advertiser to keep track of exactly where it is.