Will the Internet Kill the Television Ad?

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We are obsessed by watching our world go digital, as if the Internet is Medusa gradually turning our old ways of life to stone. Research shows that voters are consuming more political ads online than ever. But does that mean television’s reign as the primary political medium is over? 

In their new report, “Voters Going Off the Grid: 2012,” SAY Media surveyed 800 likely voters across the U.S., as well as an additional 300 in Florida and Ohio. They found that almost half of them aren’t using live TV as their primary source of video content this cycle. More of them own smartphones and tablets, and a rising number are switching from cable viewing to online streaming. Meanwhile, many are breezing through political ads like all those other broadcast commercials, thanks to their DVRs. Anecdotally, I’ve heard the same: My aunt who lives in Ohio told me months ago that her family was swearing off live TV until after the election. “So what does this mean for the candidates?” SAY media asks in a post about the report. “Time to change their TV media plan?”

The campaigns, as well as the new wave of super PACS, are certainly diversifying. According to data from Visible Measures, a video analytics outfit, online ads pushed by presidential backers had hit more than 70 million views as of August 1. Team Obama’s videos have yielded more than 32 million of those hits, one-fourth of which were paid for through sites like YouTube. That’s three times the amount of views the campaign had shelled out for two months before, says Visible Measures’ Matt Fiorentino, which means the campaign is spending more time and money thinking about advertising efforts online. According to their data, Mitt Romney has spent less and reaped less. His campaign has paid for 2 million online ad views and has gotten 10 million total. Yet his super PAC backers–the same ones outspending liberal super PACs in traditional advertising–have driven about four times as many as their third-party counterparts.

In this week’s wireless-themed issue of TIME, Michael Scherer explains how wireless technology is changing politics, including how campaigns are diversifying even within their digital strategies:

Mobile digital campaigning is also changing political advertising, allowing candidates to woo voters while they wait in line at the supermarket…Campaigns now have the ability to produce mobile ads, often at a discount from desktop ads, anywhere large groups of targeted voters are gathering–on a college campus, at a NASCAR race or even at a parade in a swing neighborhood.

As Scherer mentions, one advantage of these online ads is that they can be aimed at very specific viewers. And people can’t fast-forward them like they do commercial breaks during Dancing With the Stars. As we know, television ads are very expensive, especially in certain swing state markets, while the cost of online ads is more manageable. So TV should be sunk, right?

That might be true in a world where campaigns and their friends had limited financial resources. But spending on traditional advertising–television and radio–is more robust than ever. An NBC News/Smart Media Group Delta analysis released this week showed that this cycle’s outlays had just topped $500 million, about the same spent in the entire 2008 election. So for now, TV stations’ revenue appears to be safe. It’s the besieged person trying to avoid political ads who should be feeling hopeless.