© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute

Campaigns Can Now See What You Watch on TV. It’s Changing Everything.

Smart TVs that track what people watch and how they watch it give political campaigns a new trove of data to exploit, with little transparency on how it’s happening.

The logos for Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus and Sling TV are pictured on a Roku remote control.
Jenny Kane/AP

Political aide turned data guru Jesse Contario works in the shadows. His employer, MiQ, will never be mentioned at the end of a campaign ad, and it won’t show up on the disclosures campaigns must post to keep the public abreast of their work.

Yet Contario works with some of the biggest campaigns in the country — and his firm might know a lot about you. MiQ specializes in harvesting data, including for political campaigns, and it increasingly is pulling data from streaming TV to help campaigns hit viewers with the right messages at the right times.

To hear data experts tell it, the smart TV revolution was supercharged by COVID-19, when consumers stuck inside rushed to upgrade their televisions. Now, streaming television is quickly becoming instrumental to campaigning, promising politicians the ability to reach more voters and target them with highly specific ads.

“People are spending more time with streaming than broadcast or cable television,” Contario said. “And the user isn’t discerning between whether they’re watching broadcast TV or streaming. They’re sitting on the couch, watching ads on the big screen in their living room.”

But campaigns’ ability to peer into the television habits of voters alarms privacy advocates, who say voters are not properly informed about what’s on their television.

“Television now watches us more than we watch it,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Digital Democracy. “The same kinds of strategies used to track and target individuals in order to sell advertising popularized by Google and Meta have been purposely and deliberately exported to the television.”

Televisions that can stream platforms like Hulu or Max usually come loaded with technology that collects information on what viewers are watching, and buyers consent to have their viewing tracked when they open their new TV and click through terms of service agreements. Sometimes, data firms can connect those viewing habits to a voter’s phone or laptop via their IP address, promising a trove of information about an individual and the ability to track them across screens.

Other times, firms focus on dividing households into groups based on what they’re watching, how they use their TVs and how many campaign ads they’re seeing, which is a boon to political campaigns eager to target specific groups of voters. Connecting this data to voter files is increasingly a focus — a move that adds individual voting habits into the mix.

MiQ “is committed to setting and upholding the highest standards of ethics, transparency and respect for privacy” and “adheres to all federal and state regulations around political advertising disclosures,” as well as any disclosures required by platforms, Contario said. The company doesn’t “tie data to specific and identifiable individuals, they anonymize and aggregate their data.”

Campaigns have for decades poured a significant portion of their budgets into buying ads for broadcast and cable television, which was believed to be the best and most powerful way to advertise to voters. But television viewership is rapidly changing. Today, more than half of ads booked on traditional television go to target only 11% of swing voters, according to data collected by Cross Screen Media, an analytics firm started by GOP operative Michael Beach.

Cross Screen Media estimates that close to 40% of video advertising budgets — around $4.2 billion — will go to digital ads this cycle, up from about 27% four years ago.

Because MiQ is essentially a subcontractor hired by advertising firms, the campaigns that hire it don’t have to disclose the use of its services. The company has revealed a few of its clients after the fact, and they show how well-utilized new data analytics firms are: In recent years, MiQ worked to elect former Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and, in 2020, President Joe Biden.

During Biden’s first election, MiQ analyzed television viewership in Arizona in search of households that hadn’t been hit yet by broadcast advertising and identified 82,000 additional homes for the campaign to target with pro-Biden messaging on streaming and digital. The firm also trolled smart TVs in Pennsylvania to find households targeted with pro-Trump content, then helped the campaign hit back with pro-Biden ads of its own, according to a case study by MiQ.

“We saw that some households were exposed to a Trump ad 163 times,” the firm wrote. “We conquested those same households with Biden digital messaging at a frequency of 73 times to disrupt Trump’s TV messaging and counter it with Biden’s alternative message.”

Big-screen televisions sit on display in a Costco warehouse.
David Zalubowski/AP

MiQ isn’t the only service offering data analytics and targeting on streaming; firms on both the left and the right are trying to hone better ways to find and target voters, especially those who don’t watch traditional television.

“This cycle is probably the biggest inflection point we’ve had in media consumption, and just how fast everything’s happening with consumers switching from television to streaming,” said Tim Cameron, founder of the GOP ad-buying firm FlexPoint Media.

In some cases, ad services claim they can follow a single person from their television to their smartphone and even to digital billboards at bus stops. Smart televisions can also help campaigns show fewer ads to frequent viewers while hitting voters who watch less TV with extra doses of messaging.

As anyone who has been relentlessly clobbered with a single political ad while trying to stream a show can attest, the technology is not perfect. But it is rapidly growing more sophisticated, and both critics and many campaign operatives agree it should be more regulated.

“It’s about the ethics, the propriety and the subversion of autonomy that comes along with using data to covertly influence people’s opinion,” said Arielle Garcia, director of intelligence at the advertising watchdog group Check My Ads. “That’s not unique to streaming TV: It applies to any digital environment where that super-invasive targeting is available.”

While the Federal Communications Commission has certain rules that, for example, require television networks to give equal opportunity to run ads to both parties, ads run on streaming networks do not have a clear regulator despite most streaming services running political ads. (One exception is Netflix, which currently does not have a political ad business.)

Lawmakers have debated for years how to regulate digital ads but have failed to come to an agreement; streaming is presenting a host of new problems.

“Regulations that have been put in place around political advertising are completely outdated to our way of doing things,” said Patrick McHugh, partner at the digital media firm Gambit Strategies.

Roku and Google (the parent company of YouTube) voluntarily offer some disclosures of political ads run on their platforms. Roku alone had more than 400 different streaming ads running during the first week of June, according to its disclosures.

Biden’s campaign disclosed airing more than 30 different ads on Roku, including a first-person testimonial from a woman who had to leave her state to get an abortion after learning her fetus would have a fatal medical condition. Pro-Trump super PAC Make America Great Again Inc. aired an ad whose narrator said, “Whether it’s dishonesty or dementia, Biden’s failed.”

Sign up for the latest from NOTUS.

Streaming networks develop their own guidelines for what makes it on air, which became an issue during the 2022 midterms when Hulu, a subsidiary of Disney, declined to air Democratic ads focused on guns and abortion — major themes of Democrats’ campaigns. (Disney changed course after public complaints.)

Campaigns often don’t know what their opponents are running. Today, only private monitoring services like AdAnalytics keep tabs on the political ads going up on streaming platforms.

For all these reasons, traditional television will still suck up the majority of the money spent on ads this cycle. But as audiences grow more fragmented and even elderly viewers add streaming to their televisions, it’s unclear how much longer linear TV will dominate.

“It’s hard to even go prime time these days. What’s there?” said longtime ad maker Mark Longabaugh. “Thank goodness we still have ‘60 Minutes.’”

This story has been updated with addition comment from MiQ about the company’s practices.

Maggie Severns is a reporter at NOTUS.