What if your television knew you were an undecided voter?

POLITICO reported yesterday that DirecTV and DISH Network are working with a new service “that allows campaigns to target television ads at specific households” rather than just at a specific demographic.1 The first concern is obviously privacy. This was an issue with demographic targeting as well, but it now goes even further. We are vaguely aware that data is being collected on us everyday. We know that there are systems out there that track what websites we visit, how long we stay on there, and where we go next. We also know that some companies collect information on what stores we shop at, how much we spend, and what products we buy. Their defense? It’s all for the good of the consumer. By conducting this research, they are able to market better towards YOU. They’ll send you alerts when your favorite store is having a sale or offer you promotions on items they know you buy frequently.

When does it become too far though? While many already have a problem with the amount of data that is collected on them, addressable advertising takes it even further. The goal is to target individuals that are “persuadable,” a metric determined using not just your tracked consumer habits but your voter information profile as well. Once target households are identified, the service sends the information to DirecTV and DISH who report back which of those individuals use their satellite service. Previously, campaigns would air ads during particular programs (sporting event, daytime talk show) which they guessed their “persuadable” demographic would be watching. With addressable advertising, “a campaign can beam ads to individual homes regardless of what program or channel they are watching.” Long story, short–if they want you to see it, you’re going to see it.

The other issue raised is that of voter knowledge and education. While it is difficult to measure exactly what effect political advertising has on voter decision, University of Wisconsin professor and President of Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis group, Ken Goldstein emphasizes that “advertising very, very much matters at the margin.”2 What this means in practice is that, while annoying, these ads do in fact affect voting. Because of this, there are two problems with the addressable advertising model. The first is that it implies that only undecided or “persuadable” voters will see the ads. Completely left out are those that the statistics determine have already made up their mind. In reality though, this group could probably  benefit from more information as well. What if they become undecided at a later time? On the other hand, what if you are only determined to be “persuadable” by one party? Will you then only get one sided information? This is particularly dangerous to the name recognition voters–the ones who vote for someone because they’ve heard of them, not because they believe in what they can accomplish.

While the article does say that you can opt out of this service, it doesn’t detail how. My guess is that it’s not very easy. Moreover, even if you can opt out of seeing the ads, the privacy concern is still there.

Yes, this strategy could lead to less political ads for those of us who are “decided” voters, but at what cost? Are we willing to risk privacy infringement and an increasingly politically uneducated electorate to see a few less commercials?



1 Schultheis, E., & Byers, A. (2014). Political TV ads’ latest target: Individuals. Politico. Retrieved from http://www.politico.com/story/2014/02/political-ads-latest-target-individuals-103443.html

2 Becker, A. (2012). Campaign Ads Effectiveness In 2012 Presidential Race Studied By Vanderbilt Team. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/23/campaign-ads-effectiveness-2012-presidential_n_1696414.html


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