Trump’s Big Ad Buy Shows That YouTube Still Matters

Tim Culpan
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Trump’s Big Ad Buy Shows That YouTube Still Matters

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When it comes to advertising revenue, Alphabet Inc.’s Google continues to dominate Facebook Inc. as the place to spend digital marketing money — except for political campaigns, where Donald Trump’s triumph showed the power of social media. Google still has a dog in the election fight, however. According to a report from Bloomberg News, Trump bought the coveted space atop YouTube’s homepage for the days leading up to his November showdown for a second presidential term, ensuring that he’ll be featured prominently. This isn’t new; Barack Obama did something similar ahead of his election-day battle with Mitt Romney in 2012.

Alphabet brought in $135 billion of total ad revenue last year through its Google platforms, almost double Facebook’s $70 billion. That ratio flips when it comes to political advertising. Data from the Center for Responsive Politics show that Facebook took in $67 million in total ad spending by U.S. presidential candidates, double the $32 million that went to Google as of Nov. 14. Figures published just this month and collated by eMarketer —  which also track advertising related to federal, state and local politics, including elections and lobbying — put the digital divide in that broader metric at a 3-to-1 ratio in favor of Facebook. 

Facebook’s powerful role in politics was highlighted by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which the consulting firm harvested data from the social media platform and used it for targeted campaign ads, helping Trump win election in 2016. 

YouTube.com is the world’s second-most popular website behind Google.com, according to rankings from Alex Internet Inc.(1)  Yet it accounted for only 9.4% of Alphabet’s revenue last year, with most of the company’s money coming from search-engine advertising. Expect the video platform’s contribution to rise in 2020, however, as candidates take to online video to target voters directly while still holding their attention long enough to watch a video in ways that Facebook cannot. 

Leading the spending is Michael Bloomberg, who is using his own money to seek the Democratic presidential nomination rather than procuring donations. (Disclaimer: Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.) 

Bloomberg spent $48 million on Facebook between Jan. 1, 2019, and Feb. 19 this year, almost double the $25 million for Trump during the same period, according to data from the social media company. What’s interesting, though, is that Alphabet isn’t so far behind in drawing presidential campaign dollars. Bloomberg spent $42 million on Google, YouTube and partner properties between May 30, 2018, and Feb. 18, 2020, ahead of Trump, whose campaign teams have spent around $18.1 million, according to data published by Alphabet.(2) 

This election campaign is shaping up to be the most expensive ever. Presidential candidates have already put together more than $1.18 billion — led by Trump and Bloomberg — with the primary season only just beginning, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. By comparison, war chests for the 2016 campaign totaled $1.5 billion, with Hillary Clinton and Trump between them accounting for 60%, data from CRP show.

While Facebook’s strength, and a key cause of criticism, is the ability for advertisers to dive deep into audience preferences and political leanings, Google’s platform isn’t entirely useless in terms of targeting. For example, the campaign of former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is competing for the Democratic nomination, took out ads focused on audiences in 10 specific Nevada zip codes ahead of the state’s primary Saturday, according to Google data for the week of Feb. 15.

Senator Bernie Sanders, who ranks second in Democrat spending across the two platforms, deployed ads aimed at specific Iowa zip codes ahead of his neck-and-neck finish with Buttigieg in the Feb. 3 caucus. Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is fourth in terms of outlays, and Bloomberg have also targeted ZIP codes. 

The steady flow of advertising videos uploaded to YouTube by candidates shows that they see value in spending money on Google’s video platform. So while Facebook may have earned top spot for campaign dollars, Trump’s big election day purchase shows that YouTube is still in the race.

(1) Alex Internet has been a division of Amazon.com Inc. since 1999

(2) I count this spending across two organizations: Trump Make America Great Again Committee ($12.69m) and Donald J. Trump for President Inc. ($5.45m). A third, Conservative Buzz LLC, spent $4.76m mostly to promote Trump

To contact the author of this story: Tim Culpan at tculpan1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Patrick McDowell at pmcdowell10@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.

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