I joined Google in 2011 and worked for the company’s ad-sales department through the 2014 midterm-election cycle and into the 2016 primary races. (I left before the height of the campaign, to attend graduate school.) My job was to help political campaigns, along with the digital-advertising agencies they had hired, understand how Google’s various advertising tools worked—and, ideally, why they should spend more of their marketing budgets on us rather than Facebook, Twitter, or TV and radio. To tech companies, a political campaign is just another big brand with a message to promote. From the standpoint of revenue generation, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were no different from Coke and Pepsi.
A cynical reading of Dorsey’s move would be that he has simply become exhausted by the recurring bad PR generated by controversy after controversy over political advertising. Political ads account for only about $3 million a year of Twitter’s revenue, according to the company’s chief financial officer. (By comparison, Facebook expects to make several hundred million dollars in the 2020 election cycle.) For Dorsey, one might conclude, the revenue from political ads apparently isn’t worth the hassle.
But let’s take Dorsey at his word. He is right to worry. Digital political advertising really is more targeted than traditional advertising, as I explained many times to political campaigns whose managers and general consultants were stuck in 1995. The ability to find and speak to groups of people based on their characteristics—age, location, and gender, plus any of your niche interests—is much more efficient on digital platforms than blasting your “Save Social Security” TV ads at the Golf Channel because you think a lot of its viewers are older than 65.
This increase in ad-spend efficiency has been a boon to normal commerce. When selling a new widget or service, a start-up that would never have been able to buy expensive TV ads can actually compete with major brands for your attention. Allbirds and Dollar Shave Club, for example, probably wouldn’t have made it in a pre-digital world. Similarly, digital ads can be the most cost-effective way for new political candidates—especially those, such as Andrew Yang, who aren’t celebrities before they run for office—to make the electorate aware they exist in the first place.
One can fairly ask whether, in a democracy, we should sell policies and political candidates the same way we sell sneakers and razors. If I’m already in the market for a toaster, I’d much rather Google knew that and served me an ad for the perfect appliance for me—preferably on sale, so that I can get the transaction over quickly and efficiently. But complex, thorny topics such as abortion and immigration are up for debate, and some friction in a user’s mind is a feature, not a bug. When digital ads tell us exactly what we want to hear about these subjects, they nudge us away from considering nuances, ambiguities, and alternative points of view.