Social Media

Google and Meta cracked down on political advertising. Where did that money go?

Campaigns are relying on walled gardens “less and less.”
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Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

Though they still dominate digital advertising, Google and Meta have begun to lose the interest of a once-reliable category—political advertisers. Of every dollar spent on digital platforms during the 2019–2020 election cycle, Meta received 59% and Google made 18%, according to Insider Intelligence.

Now, in light of targeting restrictions placed on political ads since 2019, the category has begun shifting budgets elsewhere. Though analysts predict that Google and Meta will still make a combined total of over a billion dollars in ad revenue this election cycle, political strategists and media buyers told Marketing Brew that they’ve begun to find success elsewhere.

Rewind

In late 2019, Google announced that it would limit political ad targeting to only age, gender, location, and context. Those changes also extended to YouTube. Previously, advertisers could target audiences based on political affiliation and serve ads “based on public voter records.”

In 2021, Meta similarly announced that it would “remove Detailed Targeting options that relate to topics people may perceive as sensitive,” including health, race, religion, and political affiliation. Both companies also maintain libraries of political ads that have run on their platforms.

Unlike Google, which blocked the feature for election ads, Meta enables advertisers to create or upload audiences for targeting purposes, but its tools have suffered after Apple implemented privacy updates. In August, Adweek reported that “Putting a voter list into Meta results in a 35% match rate compared to 99% using demand-side platform Simpli.fi.”

The restrictions came at a time when business was booming: Spending this cycle is projected to reach $9.67 billion, according to the advertising analytics company AdImpact—that’s $660 million more than in 2020, a presidential election year.

  • Though broadcast and cable will still receive an overwhelming amount of that spend, a substantial chunk is going into connected television and digital advertising (both seeing 14.9%, roughly $1.4 billion), which consists of just Google, YouTube, and Meta, according to Ben Taber, a senior account manager at AdImpact.
  • That’s $210 million less that they saw during the 2020 cycle, according to AdImpact’s 2020 analysis.

But 2020 was a weird year as the pandemic led to political campaigns to invest heavily in digital advertising.

So, it’s hard to determine exactly how much has really moved away from walled gardens and what’s just a recalibration. Still, some companies seem to have benefited so far, at least anecdotally, like Xandr, Roku, and The Trade Desk, said Lara Aulestia, founder and CEO of the paid media consulting firm 1060 Advisors.

“For the most part, there are very few, if any, political buyers using [Google’s] DSP today. They’re using lots of other Google technology and inventory, but they’re not using the DSP,” she said. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, owns YouTube, which has also likely benefited from the explosion in CTV growth despite lacking the targeting capabilities allowed on other platforms.

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“We definitely have seen more spend shift toward the programmatic ecosystem,” said Mark Jablonowski, managing partner and chief technology officer of DSPolitical, a “targeted digital ad network for Democrats and progressives.” Jablonowski said that “since [Google] blocked first-party data targeting for political campaigns,” he hasn’t “spent any money” on Google’s DSP. “We’re working with other vendors in the space that still permit it.”

Executives at other advertising platforms told Marketing Brew that they’ve also benefited. Frost Prioleau, CEO and co-founder of Simpli.fi, told Marketing Brew that political ad spend on the platform had tripled over the 2020 election cycle.

“The share of the walled gardens is probably shrinking [in political].” CTV was likely driving that growth, he said.

Jeremy Hudgens, chief revenue officer of the political ad-tech company Genius Monkey, said his company has spent more than 50% less on Google as a whole compared to the last election cycle. He said the company is also using Facebook “less and less.”

On the campaign side, Phillip Habib, VP of campaigns at the conservative firm First Tuesday Strategies, has moved up to 90% of his persuasion budget away from Meta and Google (but not YouTube or YouTube TV).

“You can’t target with Google.” he said. “When you have a finite amount of resources, you try to spend them all just on the people who vote.” He still advertises on Meta, largely on email acquisition and donations.

Though still capable as a tool for fundraising, creative on Meta can struggle to persuade voters, strategists told us.

“Facebook tends to not be one of those platforms that really creates memorable ad experiences…when it comes to really driving a message, we haven’t necessarily found it to perform at the same level as a platform like YouTube,” said Jake Sticka, VP of client strategy at the progressive shop Rising Tide Interactive.

The restrictions have not only changed where advertisers are spending but how they’re spending. Eric Wilson, SVP for strategy at the Bullpen Strategy Group, told Marketing Brew that political campaigns are now more reliant on “sort of a mass-marketing exercise” to potentially influence voters, as opposed to direct-action campaigns to raise money, or attract volunteers.

If you can’t target specific voters, you can’t reach them with more localized or personalized issues, he said. “The bigger trend line is that digital advertising in politics is moving [away] from direct response, more toward persuasion.

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