So how do ad-makers make sure their pitches meet the right eyeballs? It starts with data. Campaigns and data brokers have been collecting information for years. Your voting history, income level, family situation—it's all at their fingertips. Now they're discovering the power of matching that information with your cable box or satellite receiver.
This is done anonymously; selected attributes are matched to the receivers of the matching households, not the account holder's name. Laws prevent ad buys that go below 1,000 households for fear too-specific targets could reveal users' identities.
After the households are selected and assigned their various ads, campaigns can wait for a given time or save the ad in queue until someone is watching TV. With satellite, for instance, ads are downloaded into the DVR when it's turned off, then inserted into an available commercial slot once someone's watching. Cable, with its greater bandwidth, can just pipe ads in from afar when a slot opens up.
Some pay-TV companies have been testing addressable advertising since 2010, and they've been touting its potential benefits since at least 2012. At present, it's estimated the technology can reach 37 million households. And carriers see a political future. DirecTV and Dish Network announced earlier this year they were teaming up to let campaigns access all 20 million of their combined subscribers during election season.
"The way [television] is being bought now is so broad and generic," said Tim Kay, the political strategy director for NCC Media. His firm partners with giants like DirecTV, Dish, and Comcast to bring targeted ads to viewers. "A lot of times people use broadcast [advertising] for name recognition."¦ It could be done better. You can turn out that persuadable universe, you can reach out and get additional people that you normally wouldn't because you're targeting them with a specific ad that's relevant to them as opposed to a generic one."
The possibilities are nearly endless. Campaigns could urge people they believe to be supportive but who are not yet registered voters to sign up before the election—a pitch that's much more effective in a personal on-screen appeal than in your spam folder. Interactive ads could allow campaigns to pair their ads with a link to donate right from the TV screen.
What is certain is that the powers of targeted TV ads are only just being discovered. "We're really just scratching the surface of what can be done when it comes to TV," said Chris Hock, an executive at TV advertising firm Black Arrow.
The only real limits, he said, are on just how many ads a campaign has the capacity to create. "[When] does your audience become so small that you just don't have creative [staff] for it?" said Hock.
For the time being, most industry experts agree that making five different ads for different audiences is about the right number, given the resources of today's campaigns.