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When Russians Hack Adder…


Advertising for elections and political campaigns effectively, post-2016, takes a fundamentally different approach.

Things Changed, Bigly

American politicians have a flair for the dramatic, to say the least. We like decisive (divisive?) language, big ideas, promises for limitless future growth, and yard signs.

Boy, we really love those dang yard signs.

Aww, you are too, lil’ buddy.

As our elections have evolved, our political advertisements have become something of a modern American tradition, setting a global trend with our hyperbolic behavior and a willingness to make less-than-realistic claims and campaign promises. There continue to be few rules governing this territory.

Unfortunately, things seemed to have gotten a bit out of hand in the 2016 election, when years of data mining via online social media culminated in a propaganda shadow war whose winner would determine the next president of the United States.

And to think — it all started out with a ginger kid at Harvard rating how attractive his classmates were.

Social Engineering, for Dummies

Anyone could weaponize Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites to mobilize political bases and spread faulty information. This is precisely what happened, and the impact was substantial. Many of us lost contact with or cut off a few friends and relatives as a response to what was being said and shared.

Three years later and we’re still at it — with disinformation becoming part of the status quo. Spotting so-called ‘fake news’ and other disingenuous press covfefe has become a valued soft skill in the information age.

In order to accomplish the level of disinformation needed to win a presidential election, you’ll want a few tools:

First, you’d need some way of targeting specific groups of people with specific beliefs, you’d need to have all that categorized, and you’d need to keep track of who’s who.

Next, you’d need to be able to engage those people. Thankfully, social media platforms like Facebook make it very easy to do this. In 2016, spinning up a boatload of fake accounts was a convenient way to spread controversial news without the risk of that news being linked to your personal identity.

Finally, using these tools, the best way to spread the word fast is to throw some cash into an advertiser account and get to work. And by work I mean, set the targeting and let Facebook serve your juicy content to people that are most likely to engage with it.

Bonus points if your headline is topical, sensational, and completely false; but store-bought outrage is fine, too.

The Cost to Social Media

The process described has changed in the wake of the 2016 election to include more accountability. More on this later, but the general process of demographic targeting to display content in the Facebook feed remains the same.

Any digital marketer reading this knows that this is all boilerplate, but the general public remains largely uninformed. According to Pew, over 70% of Facebook users have no idea that these demographic targeting lists exist for use with the advertising platform.

Should we tell them?

I’ll give you this: the social engineering made possible by Facebook and Google targeting is highly effective. It can also make fringe movements feel like they’re spread across the globe, as in the case with the flat-Earthers.

With anything digital, it’s easy to replicate an idea and scale it up. There were no checks in place to stop or impede the spread of disinformation, because these accounts are hard to police on a network with 2 billion users. Calling people ‘Russian bots’ and ‘Soros shills’ are still common ways of discrediting an opponent in social media comments.

Many thought that this utilization of personal data equated to being “our election being hacked by Russians”, but the reality is that they were just pretty good at ad targeting on social media. We’ll see if the Mueller report shows more than that, but the fact remains — online ad targeting and content algorithms are shaping our reality at this point.

More than half of the adult users in the US don’t understand how content is generated dynamically in the news feed based on user preferences, so it wasn’t hard to manipulate their idea of what was happening in the world at large.

Before I go any further, I should note — I’m not writing this as a hit on Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, or Google ads. I’m writing this to talk about risks in using only digital media, and how to mitigate those risks.

That’s pretty lousy news, isn’t it? Now what?

The tech giants, today, have started making moves to address the problems that became very apparent in 2016. Many of us are asking if these social media behemoths are going about it the right way, testing out a number of systems to help curb the fake news problem.

Unfortunately, it all seems to be a too-little-too-late scenario, at least for the looming 2020 election. Trust in online media is down, with Facebook taking the biggest dip among the tech companies. Crashing from a 79% trust rating to just 27% in a matter of weeks devastated the platform’s overall credibility. While things may improve, the needle hasn’t moved much in favor of national news and advertising.

Studies by Nielsen show online ads are now the least trusted single-touch medium, particularly in banner and video ads that autoplay. These types of ads are often used to generate further engagement and to drive action toward the more detailed and built-out content about a candidate’s campaign and platform.

The rub? Decreased trust amounts to decreased engagement overall. That’s bad news for anyone trying to build inroads with constituents or new customers. Advertising space online is finite, and with crackdowns on bad accounts sweeping social media, the supply of placement spaces is decreasing.

Decreased placement supply is a big part of why my last LinkedIn campaign had a CPM of over $100.

Driving Engagement, the Old Fashioned Way

Surprisingly, millennials, for all the headaches they give digital marketers, respond positively to outdoor ads. More so than online ads, again according to Nielsen rankings. Their 2013 study showed that 57% of voters trust outdoor ads, 9% higher than what the same people said of social media ads. This divide has likely widened in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, although more data should be collected to determine how wide the trust gap between online and out of home advertising has become.

The reasons for the trust gap are numerous, but logic would suggest that a combination of low ad-trust online and the locality of outdoor ads created the gap between the two mediums. Ad blockers have also played a role, resulting in fewer opportunities to reach large market segments online.


In the early days of online ads, the advantages of low CPMs and high engagement rates were enough to shift spending toward them. But today, with online ad markets maturing, outdoor ads have pulled ahead on the ability to draw in and engage new customers and constituents.

Trust and locality seem to be the key factors driving that engagement. The same can be said of local TV ads, as Nielsen ratings suggest that local television stations have the advantage over national network TV in building trust.

Spreading misinformation online is easy because of the lack of accountability, but it’s much more difficult on a local level. For one, there’s much more oversight on local advertisements, institutionally — there are more people involved in approving content for TV and billboards. A bigger factor is feedback, though, as these ads are distributed publicly.

The good thing is that it’s very easy to keep out of home advertisers accountable, since the ads are served in the commons. It’s very easy to report and remove outdoor political ads, should a foreign government attempt to interfere and influence our elections..

Don’t believe me?

Allow me to demonstrate what happens in a scenario we like to call:

“When the Russians hack Adder…”

While this whip may have room for all your cyka blyats, the general American public might find this ad questionable. Millennials, on the other hand…

Can You Measure Outdoor Ads, Though?

Yup, we sure can.

We created Adder Analytics to further understand and measure the relationship between out of home ads and the people that see them. Our portal includes features that measure billboards, bus ads, our own car wrap ads, and other vehicle based advertisements.

We analyze billions of location data points every day to give marketing statistics on outdoor ads like impressions, location conversions, dwell times, and so on.

Billions and billions and billions… of anonymized data points.

Our team has run several case studies across multiple markets, and have continued to find additional ways to measure the impact of our own ads. We also now offer measurement and analytics for our partner’s ad inventory utilizing hardware-less GPS solutions, as well as sensor and radio based systems.

Adder’s initial post 2016 studies indicated that consumers view outdoor ads 250% more positively than online ads, and we’re conducting new studies are being conducted to see the shift over time.


The Case Studies

With two initial case studies complete, we’re seeing promising results. In both political campaigns, the areas with more Adder impressions correlated with increased voter lift for the candidates using our vehicle advertisements. The voter conversion data, while limited in scope, had the benefit of being verified by the state election boards in Kentucky and Indiana, respectively.

For the sake of absolute trust and transparency — we haven’t worked on enough campaigns to feel comfortable promising that “Adder will get you X amount of voter lift”. We’re data scientists, and truth told, we’d like to collect many more data points so we can demonstrate how effective Adder is for elections and political campaigns.

Adder plans to do more case studies to demonstrate the efficacy of outdoor ads for political campaigns in the coming months. These will be part of our larger analytics efforts to show the ROI on vehicle based advertising such as mobile billboards, car wrap ads, semi fleet graphics, and other unique out of home ad media.


The 2016 election saga brings us here, back again at the yard sign ad, and it’s big brother, the billboard. And now, the cousin-who-loves-Nascar of OOH: Adder and other vehicle advertising systems like it.

Out of home advertising has remained the cornerstone of grassroots campaigning, and it’s not leaving.

The question is — where are out of home ads going?

Find out at adder.io

-Ian Gerard

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