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It came as no little surprise to me last week that incumbent US President Donald Trump’s campaign had taken over YouTube’s “masthead" on Sunday, 25 October. The 24-hour takeover, which cost “a seven-figure sum" (while the actual cost is unknown, knowledgeable estimates place it at around $2 million), was of some of the internet’s most expensive and coveted “real estate". This masthead is available to only one advertiser per day.

I had been under the impression that his Democrat rival Joe Biden’s campaign had been vastly better funded and that the incumbent had been struggling to keep up his fund-raising. This led me to the natural conclusion that Biden had been able to outspend Trump on some of the most exclusive internet real estate, especially given that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) ought to have learnt its lessons from the 2016 presidential election in the US, when the internet played a pivotal role in Trump’s surprise victory.

But the real shock was that the Trump campaign bagged YouTube’s masthead for the final three days before voting was to close, starting 1 November and going through election day on 3 November. This was the “prime time" of what were probably the most important pre-election days.

YouTube is the second-most visited website on the internet, behind only its owner, Google. The online video platform overtook Facebook in 2018. As a result, it is also the second-largest search engine in the world and its masthead has more daily reach than CNN and MSNBC combined.

There is another factor that makes YouTube irresistible to advertisers. It has by far the most effective message penetration. As all of us who have used the website have experienced, YouTube serves up ads that cannot be skipped, at least for the first several seconds. All of us endure this simply because we want to see the content after the ad. And yes, of course, YouTube also has a feature available for premium advertisers, which does not allow the viewer to skip any part of the ad before the chosen content starts playing. Trump’s Republican handlers have focused on such ads.

According to The New York Times, the dates just before election day were decided almost a year ago, months before Biden secured the Democratic nomination. Trump’s campaign worked closely with Google Inc and locked in the key dates of 1, 2 and 3 November. For this, it used special early access that it was granted as part of an incentive programme for “big advertisers". In 2019, the DNC did not know who its nominee would be, and had not spent “enough" with Google during the year to qualify for this incentive scheme. It seems that Trump’s campaign had the foresight to work with Google and plan the most important dates to reach voters just before they cast their ballots. Its spokespersons as well as the Trump campaign’s backer, Fox News, claimed that this was indeed the case, and that Republicans had scored a masterstroke.

By 3 November, the Trump campaign had secured the YouTube masthead 20 times this election cycle, including election day. Before that, the Trump campaign took over YouTube for eight days in August. This was during both the Democratic and Republican conventions.

The Trump campaign has invested heavily on Facebook and Google, supposedly outspending the Biden campaign by $50 million since mid-April, according to data from the Wesleyan Media Project (https://bit.ly/35VL91H) . According to their data, the US presidential election ad spending on television, digital outlets and radio between 9 April and 25 October had surpassed $1.5 billion. And despite its YouTube coup, the two campaigns have spent a roughly equal amount on digital advertising in recent weeks as Biden built up his funding advantage.

The DNC has spent heavily on television ads. The Wesleyan Media Project reported that Democratic television ads have outstripped Republican television ads by 2 to 1 during the last month. But let’s not forget that watching a YouTube ad is unlike watching a television ad. One can just get up and go off to the bathroom or the kitchen during an advertising break during television programming, while getting away from a YouTube blurb is not quite so easy.

The DNC has been complaining that the treatment meted out to it was unfair and that Google’s ad policies lacked transparency and clarity. For its part, Google responded that it treats political advertisers in exactly the same way as it treats non-political advertisers or brands, meaning that The Coca-Cola Company, say, is treated in exactly the same way as both major US political parties. Also, to be fair, while the Republican campaign’s ad buying tactics are likely to have rubbed Trump’s many critics the wrong way, it was taken straight out of the DNC’s own playbook. In 2012, President Barack Obama’s campaign bought the same space before Mitt Romney landed the Republican party’s nomination. The shoe fits both ways.

The real travesty, however, is that legislators in the US have left advertising on the internet unregulated. Established laws that regulate both TV and radio channels in the US require broadcasters to give equal time to each political party’s ads. Internet companies, however, make their own political ad policies. It’s clear that both parties in the US seem to like the status quo. The ultimate loser here is neither party. It is the voter.

Siddharth Pai is founder of Siana Capital, a venture fund management company focused on deep science and tech in India

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