One Clear Result from the Midterms: TV Gets Voters

Political pundits have spent the better part of two years preparing for the 2018 midterms. Given the uncertainty and surprises of the 2016 election cycle, this year’s election proved yet again that TV advertising can help campaigns reach and motivate voters. While 2018 did not answer everything, one trend is clear: pundits who predicted that local broadcast television advertising would lose its importance were wrong — very wrong.

In fact, spending was up 50 percent in 2018 from the 2014 midterm cycle. Best estimates point to the 2018 midterms as setting the all-time record for local broadcast television spending on political ads during any election, more than $3 billion.

Campaigns always grapple with tactical considerations when designing and placing ads. But time and again, local broadcast TV proves the most effective way to reach voters with a message in an environment they trust, marrying TV’s unparalleled reach with the sight, sound and emotion of a TV ad.

Likewise, TV consistently polls high in terms of voter confidence, far outstripping social media platforms or other advertising media. In the American Conversation Study, commissioned by TVB and conducted by Engagement Labs, 80 percent of respondents said they trust local broadcast TV news and 75 percent trust news from local TV websites – only 28 percent trust news from social media.

This cycle, several television ads were notable not only for their tenor and resonance but for how well they illustrate TV’s enduring power to reach and motivate voters.

Take the hotly contested Arizona Senate race. Both Rep. Martha McSally and Rep. Kyrsten Sinema relied heavily on television advertising to invigorate target voters. McSally, in particular, made a splash with a striking ad emphasizing her history of military and public service. McSally’s ad used TV’s unique storytelling power to deliver her campaign’s theme of service, a focus that helped her remain competitive in one of this year’s closest races.

Similarly, in the Tennessee Senate race between Rep. Marsha Blackburn and former Gov. Phil Bredesen, Blackburn leveraged footage of President Donald Trump, highlighting his endorsement at a rally for her campaign. For Blackburn, this endorsement proved a decisive edge in the race. The ads hit home on target messaging, reaching voters with imagery they knew would be effective.

In these tight races, local TV ads made the difference. Which comes as no surprise to the U.S. Postal Service, whose 2017 research indicates that TV ads are the most persuasive form of political outreach. According to Kyle Roberts, president and CEO of Advertising Analytics, “Local broadcast TV carried the day for all candidates.”

Candidates sought out local TV because they know that’s where voters are. In a similar example, Texas candidate Mary “M.J.” Hegar even solicited donations by letting supporters know that “we can win if we can run our ads on Dancing With The Stars and Monday Night Football.”

These midterms demonstrated that voters continue to trust local broadcast TV and that it provides powerful context for the ads that appear on TV stations’ programming. While the book is still being written on the 2018 midterms, we can be sure that the chapter on local television advertising will include the conclusion: tried, trusted and effective. For those that thought 2016 was a referendum on political television ads, this year clearly proved them wrong.


Steven J. Lanzano is the president and chief executive officer of the Television Bureau of Advertising, a not-for-profit trade association representing America’s local broadcast television industry.

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