“When you watch video on any one of these things, imagine that there is someone sitting next to you with a notepad,” Scott Tranter, the CEO and co-founder of the political-data consultancy Øptimus, told me.
This information is, of course, highly valuable to advertisers—so valuable, in fact, that Vizio’s CTO told The Verge that manufacturers would have to charge a premium on “dumb” TVs to make up for what they lose without the ability to show viewers targeted ads. Advertising is most effective when it works like a heat-seeking missile. All these data about user habits allow companies to place them in easy-to-target audience categories: parents, Spanish speakers, gamers, and so on.
But it isn’t just traditional advertisers who are interested: In the run-up to 2020, political campaigns hungry to connect with younger voters—cord-cutters and “cord nevers”—are using smart-TV data, combined with voter information, to target people precisely.
Imagine that a campaign wanted to reach active voters who care strongly about a political issue—the environment, for example. One way to reach them might be to find out what they’re watching—Our Planet, say—and advertise on those shows. This isn’t all that different from the way advertising has worked forever: A car manufacturer might advertise on Top Gear, or a meal-kit start-up on Top Chef. But now campaigns can combine the sophisticated, segmented data sets they already have with the ones smart-TV manufacturers have gathered to target small groups of voters with greater precision.
Since 2002, companies such as Aristotle, eMerges, and NationBuilder have made a lucrative business of compiling databases of segmented voter information—names, addresses, gender, race, party affiliation, voting history, donation history, and so on—and selling them to political campaigns, which then use them to target canvassing efforts. (For example, a presidential campaign might send a fundraising announcement only to Republicans in wealthy zip codes who have a history of high-value donations, or target get-out-the-vote door-knocking campaigns toward registered Democrats who’ve voted in the past two elections.)
Campaigns, or third parties working on their behalf, now work with providers such as Vizio, Roku, Dish Network, and DirecTV to match their lists—of voters and customers, respectively—against each other. (Dish Network and DirecTV confirmed their use of such tactics to The Atlantic. Representatives for Roku did not respond to requests for comment, though the company has posted a listing for a political-ad-sales account manager.)
As explained by the Interactive Advertising Bureau, a data broker matches anonymous voter identities to anonymous smart-TV households. A connected-TV ad server then sends the ad to said household’s device. Let’s say your TV knows your household watches a lot of children’s programming, and a campaign knows you’re a registered Democrat living at a specific address in suburban Sacramento, California. By combining this information, the two together might be able to assume you’re a parent—and thus might be able to specifically target you with ads for a local school-board candidate, or for a national candidate with a universal-child-care platform.