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How ‘microtargeting’ works in political advertising

February 18, 2014 at 6:27 PM EDT
What you watch, read, buy and listen to online can tell political campaigns whether it’s worth their time and money to woo your vote. Gwen Ifill talks to Ken Goldstein of the University of San Francisco and Eitan Hersh of Yale University to learn more about how our digital footprints are being used in the evolution of political advertising.

GWEN IFILL: In an age of hyper-connectedness, it was only a matter of time until the politicians found you. Does the music you stream make you a Democrat or a Republican? Do the programs you record to watch later give political ad-makers a clue to whether you’re persuadable? Satellite TV, radio and cable are all in on the game, which takes targeted advertising way beyond what you’re getting in the mail. But how does it work?

For that, we turn to Ken Goldstein, professor of politics at the University of San Francisco and former president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political advertising, and Eitan Hersh, assistant professor of political science at Yale University.

Ken Goldstein, how vulnerable should we downloaders, streamers, you name it, music listeners, feel about all this?

KEN GOLDSTEIN, University of San Francisco: Well, on what Pandora’s doing, I don’t think very vulnerable.

What they’re basically doing is taking data on what geographic units are doing.

GWEN IFILL: Pandora, the Internet radio…

KEN GOLDSTEIN: Internet radio, exactly.

So, they’re saying that people in this area are listening to this music, and people in this area tend to vote for this particular candidate. So they’re not really addressing it to the individual.

Now, what’s going on with other technologies in terms with return path data, so all the folks out there who are using DVRs, those DVRs are tracking all of your tuning patterns, what you’re watching, what you’re fast-forwarding through, what commercials you’re watching and not watching.

That can be connected with other individual level data about you. And that’s what’s really being used to target.

GWEN IFILL: Eitan Hersh, how long has this been going on?

EITAN HERSH, Yale University: Oh, targeting, especially targeting using voter registration lists, has been going on for a long time, for a century.

It really got off the ground in a serious way after the Help America Vote Act, which was a response to our election troubles in the year 2000 in Florida, for states to start making digital, regularly updated voter files.

And once they were making those voter files at the state level, the campaigns caught on that they could start assembling massive databases by linking people with their birth dates and address and personal information with all sorts of commercial and other public records.

GWEN IFILL: So, let me ask you this. If I’m a Bob Marley fan, but I also like Pat Boone, is this telling anyone out there who is trying to get someone elected who I’m likely to vote for?

EITAN HERSH: Well, maybe not.

One thing about microtargeting is that they have a lot of data, these campaigns and parties, that is not very well highly correlated with your political dispositions. So, it’s — just because you listen to those musicians, it doesn’t really mean that those — that those dispositions towards music are correlated with dispositions that campaigns care about, which is how likely you are to vote and whether you’re likely to support one party or another.

So there are limits in terms of the data and its relationship to politics that suggests this might not be all that compelling data for campaigns.

GWEN IFILL: Seems like Bruce Springsteen would be very confusing for people.


GWEN IFILL: But I’m also…

KEN GOLDSTEIN: And so would someone who is a fan of Pat Boone and Bob Marley.

GWEN IFILL: I try to be eclectic.

But tell me something. How lucrative is it for campaigns or for the companies themselves, whether it’s Pandora or DISH TV or any of these deliverers of information? How lucrative is it for them to work with the campaigns to provide this information?

KEN GOLDSTEIN: Well, political used to be sort of a pain for folks in the advertising business.

Now it is a very large source of revenue in even-numbered years. So not only new sort of media like Pandora are looking for their share of it, but the traditional sorts of local television, it makes up a huge proportion of their profits in election years.

Listen, like what Eitan said, targeting isn’t anything that’s new. It’s been going on for a long time. And we used to think about targeting maybe a city. Then we thought about targeting a precinct. Then we thought about targeting a street. Then we are able to target houses with this microtargeting. No I don’t have to send you a piece of mail to your house or come knock on your door.

But I’m trying to figure out exactly what shows Gwen Ifill is watching. And, actually, the Bush campaign in 2004 pioneered this. And what the really new frontier is, is this addressable advertising. So, if the big thing Obama and Bush did in 2004 and then Obama in 2008 and 2012 was trying to figure out what shows you’re watching.

Now, with addressable, they don’t care what show you’re watching. They’re going to deliver that ad to you, no matter what show you’re watching.

GWEN IFILL: Eitan, are we talking about targeting persuadable voters, or are we targeting people — are you trying to identify the people who are most likely to support you? Say, if you’re a Republican and you watch FOX, it’s — the general understanding is that those people would be Republicans anyway. So why target them?


Well, the main thing that targeting has been most useful for in the last few election cycles is targeting people who are very likely to be supporters of your side, but who might not turn out without an extra push. It’s basically — with public records just of your party registration, your past behavior in party primaries, whether you’re voting or not, it’s very easy for a lot of people to figure out if they’re likely to support you.

So, for those people, they just need the extra push, and that’s what this has mostly been about in recent election years. The question of how to target a persuadable voter is still something that campaigns know almost nothing about, meaning, if your goal as a campaign is to try to find someone who, if the campaign targets you, you’re going to change your mind, the campaigns haven’t figured that out yet.

That’s kind of the Holy Grail. And the real question is whether there is any data out there from these new sources or old sources which can help a campaign figure out who is going to change their minds.

GWEN IFILL: Now, here’s the first question I had when I read these stories, Ken. I thought to myself, how do I opt out? Are there privacy concerns? How do they stop — how do I stop them from watching me?


GWEN IFILL: Or have I already given it all away?

KEN GOLDSTEIN: I think you have already given it all away.

So, listen, the voter registration data is public data. And your voter activity is public. So, in some states, you have to register by party. But, even if you don’t, the harvesters of this can look, oh, as you know, is this person — if they voted in primaries where there’s only been Democratic action going on, so that person must be a Democrat.

And so there’s lots of ways to model publicly available data. And then, sometimes anonymously, sometimes not anonymously, it’s connected with other information about you. But that train has left the station.

GWEN IFILL: Eitan, if I am trying to — do I have to give up on my DVR? Is that what I have to do in order for that information not to be shared, or is there a way to stop it from being shared?

EITAN HERSH: Yes, well, the one suggestion I have for you is that if you’re concerned about the privacy issues, those issues are settled in state legislatures, where they decide what data on the public side and the voter registration files and other licensing data that they have that we produce at the state level can be shared — shared with parties and linked to other records.

Interestingly, in recent election cycles, at least in recent legislative cycles, some state legislators have tried to stop voter registration data and other licensing data from being used in the campaign setting for microtargeting. And those bills are always — are always ended. Those bills are put to an end by the — by the mainstream politicians who think that the data’s very useful for a campaign.

GWEN IFILL: Right. Exactly.

Eitan Hersh at Yale, assistant professor of politics, and Ken Goldstein at University of San Francisco, professors both, you depressed me a lot. Thank you.



EITAN HERSH: Thanks for having us.