The New Techniques (and Big Money) Behind Political Ads

The race for Illinois governor has been dominated by two massively wealthy candidates willing to self-fund their campaigns to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, tens of millions of which have gone toward a barrage of political advertising. But it’s not just candidates with seemingly unlimited self-funding – it’s also a media landscape with seemingly unlimited outlets.

Campaigns are buying TV ads, web banners, and producing a wealth of videos for social media, and they’re using technology to target voting blocs with ever-increasing precision.

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“Digital media has given us the opportunity to send individual messages down to individual phones, tablets, whatever digital device you have,” said Judy Franks. She’s on the Integrated Marketing Communications faculty at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and is the author of “Media: From Chaos to Clarity.”

“It allows you to treat each individual voter as the most important voter in the world and talk to them about what they specifically care about,” Franks said. “But on the flip side, when we think about civic engagement, it raises the question: how do we define community? … We can’t lose that connective tissue that binds us together as a culture.”

In addition to hyper-targeted ads, there’s also the sheer volume of them in a race dominated by wealthy men.

Gov. Bruce Rauner and J.B. Pritzker appear on “Chicago Tonight” on Aug. 14, 2017 and March 14, 2018, respectively.Gov. Bruce Rauner and J.B. Pritzker appear on “Chicago Tonight” on Aug. 14, 2017 and March 14, 2018, respectively.

Candidates J.B. Pritzker and Gov. Bruce Rauner “have the ability to flood our airwaves and our mailboxes with a barrage of advertising, and can drown out the voices of anyone else,” said Alisa Kaplan, policy director at the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

According to the most recent figures filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections and compiled by ICPR, Pritzker has spent about $53 million buying media in this election, and Rauner’s spent about $13 million. Most of the money Pritzker spent came in the Democratic primary, where he faced candidates unable to match his wealth with fundraising.

“Whoever has the most money can spend all that money getting name recognition, especially in a low-visibility race like a primary,” Kaplan said. Her group advocates campaign finance reform, like publicly financed small donor-matching programs.

Until the influx of cash into elections slows (if it ever does) expect to see ads for the midterm election just about anywhere and everywhere you look. (And if you start to miss them after Nov. 6, ads for the Chicago mayoral election will surely be around the corner.)

Related stories:

2018 Governor’s Race: Fundraising Nears $250 Million

Democrats Fire Up Their Base at Annual State Fair Rally

Rauner Uses State Fair to Compare Opponent to Swine

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