Trump and Biden are battling it out for time on YouTube’s ‘masthead’

If you’ve headed over to YouTube (GOOG, GOOGL) for a music video or a late-night clip in the last two weeks, you’ve almost surely scrolled past ads for a presidential campaign.

President Donald Trump’s campaign purchased what’s known as the “masthead,” a digital billboard placed on YouTube’s homepage, to coincide with both national conventions.

Trump’s communications director called it the “[b]est ad real estate on the web,” and the campaign used the space to attack former Vice President Joe Biden on everything from his mental faculties to his ties with China.

On Friday, YouTube’s audience found Trump gone and that spot occupied by … Biden. The Democratic nominee unveiled his own masthead featuring an ad using empty sports stadiums, classrooms, and churches to criticize President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Expect a whole lot more in that space between now and November. The ads could come not just from the two campaigns but also from campaign affiliated Super PACs and outside groups like the Lincoln Project.

Campaigns have long jostled over limited advertising opportunities in the final months before Election Day. All the way back in February, even before Biden emerged from the large field of Democrats, the Trump campaign used its head start to reportedly lock in the YouTube masthead for Election Day itself.

“I’ve been following it in the sense that I’ve been seeing it myself,” said Michael Alvarez, a professor of political and computational social science at CalTech in an interview, adding, “In 2020, digital is the campaign.”

It’s a reinforcer

Alvarez added that it’s a reflection “of the modern campaign environment which is largely moving away, particularly in the COVID era, from traditional forms of voter contact,” such as direct outreach and rallies.

“It’s a reinforcer more than anything else,” added Tobe Berkovitz, an advertising professor at Boston University, of the masthead placement. Most voters will scroll right by the ads, which don’t automatically start playing with sound. But, for the diehards, it “maintains the engagement that’s so important for the base for both Biden and for Trump.”

A screengrab from a recent Trump campaign advertisement attacking Joe Biden over his record on China.

The position works like any other advertising spot. An organization or campaign can reach out and buy time in the masthead position. The verification process is the same as other YouTube ads, although masthead videos are all manually reviewed by humans before going live. Election-related video requires an extra filter.

Other YouTube advertising options, such as targeted pre-roll ads, remain key options for the campaigns to targeting undecided voters. Those ads are not only unavoidable — you have to watch to get to your video — but they can also be put before viewers of specific influencers or fans in a specific niche.

‘Carpet bombing every possible voter every possible way’

In 2019, the Pew Research Center found that a 73% of adults reported using YouTube. That’s more than every other social media network, including Facebook.

In announcing its new ad Friday, the Biden campaign mentioned the YouTube position before noting it would also be featured with places like CBS Sports, Hulu, and Viacom. The campaign also announced “tailored spots” would be programmed toward fans in four swing states that also love their football: Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. 

Google posts data publicly on the political ad spending on its platform. Based on the latest data, Michael Bloomberg remains the biggest spender since May 2018. One of his presidential ads — which only ran for a single day — cost the billionaire over $100,000 and garnered over 10 million impressions.

The cost of the masthead position varies, with estimates for its price ranging from hundreds of thousands of dollars to more than $1 million a day.

Trump and Biden could quickly surpass Bloomberg’s spending in the coming months. Trump is seen as having the most sophisticated digital advertising efforts, stretching back to 2016. One of his committees — the “Trump Make America Great Again Committee” — has posted over 40,000 unique ads on YouTube since 2018. Another wing of the Trump campaign has posted over 10,000 more.

Biden’s recent efforts, including Friday’s announcement, signal an attempt to catch up, but he might have a ways to go. The Biden for President Committee has posted just 190 unique ads on the platform, according to the latest data. 

Berkovitz predicts that in the end the huge war chests of the campaigns and outside groups will even things out a bit. Each campaign will likely have the luxury of advertising budgets which allow them to pursue many different strategies at the same time, from masthead placement to micro-targeting to everything in between.

They are “just basically carpet bombing every possible voter every possible way,” he says.

Ben Werschkul is a producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.

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