‘Just now catching up’: Why the level – and sophistication – of digital ad spending in the ’20 election is being debated by Democrats


With the 2020 election nearly wrapped up, politicians as well as agency execs are examining the role of digital advertising — on Facebook and elsewhere —in this year’s election outcomes. 

Last fall, media buyers and digital analysts told Digiday that digital advertising would be used as a “test bed” for the 2020 presidential election. At the same time, Kantar predicted that roughly 20% of the expected $6 billion spent on paid advertising would go toward digital ads. While digital did account for “at least 20%” of this year’s political paid advertising, per Kantar, some Democrats as well as ad agency execs have questioned whether or not there was enough of a focus on digital advertising, particularly by the Democrats who lost seats in the House and the Senate. 

Last weekend, in an interview with The New York Times, congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez said some of the Democrats who lost their races were not “firing on all cylinders” as they were too reliant on getting their message across via TV and mail while not spending significantly to advertise on platforms like Facebook. Without doing so, that left those candidates vulnerable to attacks by Republicans online, noted Ocasio-Cortez. Since then, some Democrats like Congressman Conor Lamb have said that messaging more than “door-knocking or Facebook” is more meaningful to winning campaigns.

“There wasn’t as much pickup on the congressional side as Democrats had hoped for,” said Zach Blume, co-founder and managing partner of digital content studio Portal A; the shop worked with president-elect Joe Biden’s campaign on an influencer campaign earlier this fall. “Everyone held their breath to be unified and play nice in the sandbox [before the election] but now that everyone is looking for an answer, there’s a pressure release now.” 

While Blume worked with the Biden campaign, which he said had a lot of savvy investment in new social media strategies like on Cameo and Animal Crossing, he was not privy to the Democratic National Committee’s digital strategy. Still, he noted that campaigns are complicated and it’s too early to say what exactly was responsible for the loss of seats races for Democrats. “Social media doesn’t win elections —it’s part of winning elections,” said Blume. 

That being said, agency execs say that more attention should be paid to digital advertising going forward especially on new and emerging platforms like Twitch, as that’s where younger voters are spending more and more time. One digital media executive noted that Democrats are still focused primarily on traditional media and that there’s an overall “lack of focus” on digital. 

“Commercial brands have been embracing ‘digital first’ content and spending for a while, and it is clear that political parties are not at the same level as brands yet,” said Mathieu Champigny, CEO of content agency Industrial Color. “Campaign strategists are just now catching up to the key insight that digital platforms and their precise targeting are incredibly powerful persuasion tools, no matter what you are pushing, a product or a vision for the future.” 

Some politicians believe that simply being on a platform and posting organic content is enough of a digital strategy, according to Katelyn Raman, director of marketing at Hooray Agency. “People assume that if you post on social people will see it,” added Raman. “We know that’s not true. You’re leaving a lot of opportunity on the table if you are not combining a strong content strategy with a really strong paid strategy. When working in tandem, then channels will be used to their potential.” 

When it comes to digital, agency execs cautioned focusing on Facebook to fix the digital strategy as the digital strategy needs to be about multiple platforms. 

“There isn’t one strategy or another at this point,” said Blume. “You have to do everything. The way people consume media is totally fragmented. We’re all consuming media from different places. The nature of campaigns in terms of how you communicate has changed because you have to meet voters where they are. It’s not just about funneling money into Facebook, but to be in as many places as you can be.” 


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