Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a Washington, DC-based NGO that focuses on the impact of the commercial digital marketplace on consumers and citizens.
Televisions now view and analyze us—the programs we watch, what shows we click on to consider or save, and the content reflected on the “glass” of our screens. On “smart” or connected TVs, streaming TV applications have been engineered to fully deliver the forces of commercial surveillance. Operating stealthily inside digital television sets and streaming video devices is an array of sophisticated “adtech” software. These technologies enable programmers, advertisers and even TV set manufacturers to build profiles used to generate data-driven, tailored ads to specific individuals or households. These developments raise important questions for those concerned about the transparency and regulation of political advertising in the United States.
Also known as “OTT” (“over-the-top” since the video signal is delivered without relying on traditional set-top cable TV boxes), the streaming TV industry incorporates the same online advertising techniques employed by other digital marketers. This includes harvesting a cornucopia of information on viewers through alliances with leading data-brokers. More than 80 percent of Americans now use some form of streaming or Smart TV-connected video service. Given such penetration, it is no surprise that streaming TV advertising is playing an important role in the upcoming midterm elections. And, streaming TV will be an especially critical channel for campaigns to vie for voters in 2024.
Unlike political advertising on broadcast television or much of cable TV, which is generally transmitted broadly to a defined geographic market area, “addressable” streaming video ads appear in programs advertisers know you actually watch (using technologies such as dynamic ad insertion). Messaging for these ads can also be fine-tuned as a campaign progresses, to make the message more relevant to the intended viewer. For example, if you watch a political ad and then sign up to receive campaign literature, the next TV commercial from a candidate or PAC can be crafted to reflect that action. Or, if your data profile says you are concerned about the costs of healthcare, you may see a different pitch than your nextdoor neighbor who has other interests. Given the abundance of data available on households, including demographic details such as race and ethnicity, there will also be finely tuned pitches aimed at distinct subcultures produced in multiple languages.
An estimated $1.4 billion dollars will be spent on streaming political ads for the midterms (part of an overall $9 billion in ad expenditures). With more people “cutting the cord” by signing up for cheaper, ad-supported streaming services, advances in TV technologies to enable personalized data-driven ad targeting, and the integration of streaming TV as a key component of the overall online marketing apparatus, it is evident that the TV business has changed. Even what’s considered traditional broadcasting has been transformed by digital ad technologies. That’s why it’s time to enact policy safeguards to ensure integrity, fairness, transparency and privacy for political advertising on streaming TV.
Today, streaming TV political ads already combine information from voter records with online and offline consumer profile data in order to generate highly targeted messages. By harvesting information related to a person’s race and ethnicity, finances, health concerns, behavior, geolocation, and overall digital media use, marketers can deliver ads tied to our needs and interests. In light of this unprecedented marketing power and precision, new regulations are needed to protect consumer privacy and civic discourse alike.
In addition to ensuring voter privacy, so personal data can’t be as readily used as it is today, the messaging and construction of streaming political ads must also be accountable. Merely requiring the disclosure of who is buying these ads is insufficient. The U.S. should enact a set of rules to ensure that the tens of thousands of one-to-one streaming TV ads don’t promote misleading or false claims, or engage in voter suppression and other forms of manipulation. Journalists and campaign watchdogs must have the ability to review and analyze ads, and political campaigns need to identify how they were constructed—including the information provided by data brokers and how a potential voter’s viewing behaviors were analyzed (such as with increasingly sophisticated machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms). For example, data companies such as Acxiom, Experian, Ninth Decimal, Catalina and LiveRamp help fuel the digital video advertising surveillance apparatus. Campaign-spending reform advocates should be concerned. To make targeted streaming TV advertising as effective as possible will likely require serious amounts of money—for the data, analytics, marketing and distribution.
Increasingly, key gatekeepers control much of the streaming TV landscape, and purchasing rights to target the most “desirable” people could face obstacles. For example, smart TV makers– such as LG, Roku, Vizio and Samsung– have developed their own exclusive streaming advertising marketplaces. Their smart TVs use what’s called ACR—”automated content recognition”—to collect data that enables them to analyze what appears on our screens—“second by second.” An “exclusive partnership to bring premium OTT inventory to political clients” was recently announced by LG and cable giant Altice’s ad division. This partnership will enable political campaigns that qualify to access 30 million households via Smart TVs, as well as the ability to reach millions of other screens in households known to Altice.
Connected TVs also provide online marketers with what is increasingly viewed as essential for contemporary digital advertising—access to a person’s actual identity information (called “first-party” data). Streaming TV companies hope to gain permission to use subscriber information in many other ways. This practice illustrates why the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) current initiative designed to regulate commercial surveillance, now in its initial stage, is so important. Many of the critical issues involving streaming political advertising could be addressed through strong rules on privacy and online consumer protection.
For example, there is absolutely no reason why any marketer can so easily obtain all the information used to target us, such as our ethnicity, income, purchase history, and education—to name only a few of the variables available for sale. Nor should the FTC allow online marketers to engage in unfair and largely stealth tactics when creating digital ads—including the use of neuroscience to test messages to ensure they respond directly to our subconscious. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which has largely failed to address 21st century video issues, should conduct its own inquiry “in the public interest.” There is also a role here for the states, reflecting their laws on campaign advertising as well as ensuring the privacy of streaming TV viewers.
This is precisely the time for policies on streaming video, as the industry becomes much more reliant on advertising and data collection. Dozens of new ad-supported streaming TV networks are emerging—known as FAST channels (Free Ad Supported TV)—which offer a slate of scheduled shows with commercials. Netflix and Disney+, as well as Amazon, have or are soon adopting ad-supported viewing. There are also coordinated industry-wide efforts to perfect ways to more efficiently target and track streaming viewers that involve advertisers, programmers and device companies.
Without regulation, the U.S. streaming TV system will be a “rerun” of what we historically experienced with cable TV—dashed expectations of a medium that could be truly diverse—instead of a monopoly—and also offer both programmers and viewers greater opportunities for creative expression and public service. Only those with the economic means will be able to afford to “opt-out” of the advertising and some of the data surveillance on streaming networks. And political campaigns will be allowed to reach individual voters without worry about privacy and the honesty of their messaging. Both the FTC and FCC, and Congress if it can muster the will, have an opportunity to make streaming TV a well-regulated, important channel for democracy. Now is the time for policymakers to tune in.
Support for the Center for Digital Democracy’s review of the streaming video market is provided by the Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment.