Will The Presidential Election Be Decided By Ad Blockers?

When Mitt Romney announced his presidential bid in June of 2011, Uber had been operating in NYC for less than a month, Steve Jobs was still alive and Siri hadn’t been born. It might not seem like that long ago, but in the four years since the last presidential race, mobile technology and media consumption habits have changed dramatically.

In keeping pace with that change, programmatic ad technology has grown and improved tremendously, thanks to richer information sources; better geographic, demographic and behavioral targeting; and improved cross-device reach. Political campaign managers know this, which is why broadcast TV spending is forecasted to dip to $5 billion by 2020 in favor of digital political ads, which “will have risen to within 30% of broadcast TV levels.”

Programmatic Gets Political

Thanks to quantum advances in programmatic media buying capabilities, messaging undecided voters in specific locations and across devices is now possible in a way that it wasn’t during the last election. But the rise of ad blocking software could mean that some groups aren’t going to be part of that conversation.

It’s hard to ignore the fact that there’s some bad behavior going on in online advertising. Even as programmatic becomes more efficient, the choices publishers and advertisers make have led to no shortage of intrusive, often obnoxious, experiences that almost anyone would admit are overly aggressive.

Now, because of a few poor players, some consumers are choosing to fight back by installing ad blockers, which not only keep out obnoxious ads, but relevant ads too. What consumers may not realize is that by banishing ads, they could be unintentionally opting out of the political conversation that will influence the future of their country.

Reaching The Millennial Middle Class

Political messaging needs to reach voters where they consume media. But that’s proving difficult.

Like young voters before them, millennials have traditionally shown up to the polls in low numbers. But this is expected to change as they enter an age range that is historically more actively engaged in elections.

It’s hard to ignore the fact that there’s some bad behavior going on in online advertising.

Research shows that millennials care about political issues, tend to be well-informed and express political opinions through social media. But they’re also the group that has been the most difficult to reach through traditional advertising.

Millennials are both digital natives and cord-cutters. And now, unfortunately for candidates, a staggering 63 percent of them admit that they have become ad blockers, too.

Cord Cutters Cut Out

Just because millennials are growing up doesn’t mean that they’re changing their media consumption habits. They engage online, but social media feeds can quickly turn into political echo chambers with few opportunities for new ideas or genuine discourse to break through.

Harvard Professor Susan Crawford recently described cable-only presidential debates as the New Poll Tax — excluding groups who can’t afford, or won’t pay for, cable television service. Limiting political debate to exclusive media channels raises serious questions about the fairness of our elections and our democracy. How can we have a well-informed public if the dialog itself isn’t public?

Globally, users of ad-blocking software skew male and younger, with gaming sites showing the highest level of ad-blocker usage. Apple’s recent introduction of content-blocking capabilities on iOS devices means another specific demographic will get cut out of the conversation — higher-income mobile consumers. These young people are the ones most likely to be making their first trip to the polls next year. As such, they’re an important group to reach. But doing so is becoming increasingly difficult.

Political campaigns have a reputation for going negative and getting ugly.

This creates a vicious cycle where issues important to younger voters, such as student-loan debt and climate change, become deprioritized because a large percentage of that group has chosen to intentionally or unintentionally opt out of the conversation.

Between cord cutting and ad blocking, millennials could be boxing themselves into a political Faraday cage — effectively shutting out almost all communication from political candidates.

Ad Blockers Can Become Democracy Blockers

By installing ad-blocking software, some consumers are further removing themselves from the democratic process, possibly without even realizing it. This should be cause for concern, not just for advertisers and publishers, but for anyone who believes American democracy is best served by a well-informed public.

Political campaigns have a reputation for going negative and getting ugly, so it’s understandable that some people might choose to insulate themselves from the whole process. But the fact is, political advertising is one of the few ways that candidates can get their message out in an increasingly fragmented media landscape.

A year from now, American voters will go to the polls to choose the next leader of the most powerful country in the world. Some will be going for the first time. We can only hope that when those voters cast their ballots they are as well-informed as possible. That means being able to gather and analyze political speech from multiple channels: debates, opinion and analysis, journalism, endorsements and even online advertising. There’s too much at stake in our democracy for anything less.