If you want to waste $500,000, this is one way to do it

On Saturday, The Hill reported that “groups calling for the Electoral College to reject President-elect Donald Trump are targeting electors with a $500,000 ad buy in the days leading up to the vote, according to USA Today.” Sounds like a bold, last-ditch effort. Right? Wrong.

A $500,000 ad buy can do quite a lot— especially online. But this money isn’t being spent online. It’s being spent on television. Again, from The Hill:

The ad is an abbreviated version of a video released earlier this week that features celebrities like Martin Sheen and Debra Messing. It will air Saturday and Sunday on cable and satellite television in all 50 states, USA Today reported.
(For reference, here’s that original ad.)

What’s the ad for?

Ostensibly, this ad’s purpose it to dissuade just 37 of the 538 members of the Electoral College to change their votes from Donald Trump to someone else, temporarily blocking his election as president and triggering a vote in the House of Representatives pursuant to the 12th Amendment. But if that’s actually its purpose then it’s one of the biggest wastes of money I’ve ever seen in political advertising.

Why are they wasting money?

$500,000 to run an ad on cable and satellite over two days targeted to just 538 people?! Never mind that you’re trying to reach 538 people during the weekend prior to one of the biggest days of their lives (so they’re unlikely to be hanging out just watching Christmas movies or football games), the odds of reaching just 538 people via TV ads are astronomically low. Like… MegaMillions winner low. Lower than low. Low.

Moreover, we know based no other actions that these (or affiliated groups) have taken that they have the names and email addresses of these 538 electors. They could easily have hired one of the many competent and sympathetic Democratic digital firms to create and target digital ads to just these 538 people (excluding all others). If they’d done that, their $500,000 would have likely reached something in the realm of 20+ million people and gotten 14+ million measurable views on Facebook—and been sure they reached the electors directly.

There isn’t a for-profit business in the country that’d spent $500k to advertise to the whole country when they’re only trying to persuade 538 people. It’s madness, and a total breach of these organization’s fiduciary responsibility to their donors. Unless…

What if they’re not trying to persuade the electors at all?

Overnight last night, Buzzfeed’s Chris Geidner reported that the Democratic efforts to upend the expected Electoral College vote are actually just the first step in an effort to undermine Mr. Trump’s presidency before it begins.

The idea is that—in a manner similar to the birther conspiracy that surrounded President Obama—sowing seeds of doubt and suspicion around the legitimacy of Mr. Trump’s presidency will erode his political capital from Day One. From Buzzfeed:

In short, Monday could be the opening salvo of a new campaign against a president’s legitimacy — a fact-based version of the racist, fact-free birther conspiracy. This time around, the questions raised appear to be legitimate — Trump’s international conflicts of interest are real and, according to the unanimous view of US intelligence agencies, Russian attempts to influence the election are likewise real. The problem this time, however, is that — for the most part — these are uncharted waters and there are no established solutions.

Like the birther conspiracy that plagued Obama (despite its falsity), the anti-Trump sentiment being stirred in the attempt to persuade electors to abandon Trump could continue to circle the political waters for years to come, playing a part in breaking down further yet another norm: the presumed legitimacy of the presidency. Trump would become the third president in a row whose legitimacy would be perpetually in question, reasonably or not, by significant numbers of opposite party.

It could continue until the issues are resolved or Trump is no longer president. What’s more, that’s likely exactly what Trump’s opponents want.

If this is true, then suddenly $500,000 in televised ads during a holiday weekend make far more sense. The ads aren’t intended to persuade 538 likely-unpersuadable electors, they’re intended to seed doubt about the legitimacy of a Trump president in the hearts and minds of millions of ordinary Americans and to generate earned media. The ads are meant to cast a shadow over his presidency before it even begins.

Bottom Line: Is this a smart ad? Will it work?

If the ads aren’t designed to persuade electors, but instead to seed doubt amongst the general population, then perhaps they’re not so wasteful at all. But that’s the problem with TV ads: it’s impossible to know for sure.

Exactly how many people did the ads reach? How many of them watched it at least 75% of the way through? What was the demographic breakdown of that audience? If they’d put that money into digital ads, they’d know. Moreover, they’d be able to re-target everyone who’d watched the video ad with future asks and messaging—continuing to drive home their message and build up their base. Now? Not so much.

Flashy TV ad buys like this always give me the sense that it’s more about looking bold than it is about being effective. They’re not an efficient deployment of limited resources designed to achieve a result, they’re a brash show of force designed to appease donors of a certain generation who want to see their money going into TV ads.

The bottom line is this: if you want to generate earned media and make donors happy, go ahead spend big money on TV ads. If you want to reach a lot of the right voters efficiently, put that money into digital video instead.

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