WASHINGTON -- The popular video-streaming site Hulu has seen a huge bump in political advertising this year. Candidate campaigns, issue groups, super PACs and others have driven up Hulu's level of political ads by more than 700 percent over the number aired in the previous two federal elections, according to the company's own accounting.
The ads are following the viewers. As Americans, especially younger adults, increasingly abandon scheduled broadcast and cable television for online and other video services, political advertisers are taking their message online.
Hulu, which hosts current-season TV episodes along with a large back catalog and premium movie content, has been airing political ads since its inception. Then-candidate Barack Obama ran the first political spots on the site back in 2008. That year saw political advertisers' first major use of digital platforms and video sites, particularly YouTube.
Overall, some $22 million was spent on online political ads in 2008. This year, the Obama campaign alone has spent $54.4 million on online advertising through its campaign committee and victory fund. Outside groups -- super PACs, nonprofits, unions and trade associations -- have spent at least $23 million on online ads through the end of September.
More money is being spent online because more voters can't be effectively reached through traditional television. In 2011, the digital publishing company SAY Media released a study that found nearly one-third of television viewers in battleground states were not watching scheduled television. Instead, they relied on DVDs, recording options like TiVo and video-streaming services that work with a laptop, Roku box or Apple TV. The biggest share of those abandoning scheduled TV fall among the 18-to-44 demographic.
Hulu looks like a cost-effective option compared to traditional television. A political campaign can purchase ads at a lower rate per view on Hulu than on television. In August alone, according to the online advertising tracking firm ComScore, Hulu ran 1.1 billion ads.
Hulu viewers are also prime targets for political campaigns. According to ComScore's data, between 70 and 80 percent of Hulu users cast a ballot in both the 2008 and 2010 elections. Those viewers are also largely affluent and young.
"Thirty-two million 18- to 34-year-olds voted in the last presidential election," said Hulu's senior communications manager, Meredith Kendall. "When you look at Hulu and the breakdown of our audience in any given month, 40 percent of our total unique viewers streaming videos are in that demo, that 18 to 34. We definitely have the right audience that candidates are looking to target."
According to Kendall, the site's ability to target viewers based on their zip code has been very popular with political advertisers.
"If you're doing a TV buy, let's say you're trying to reach people in New York," Kendall said. "If you're buying on TV, you're going to get some people in New Jersey as part of your buy. So, with Hulu, [campaigns] can be really, really specific about who they're targeting."
That zip code targeting can help aim specific ads at specific communities, whether they be college students, Latinos, rural Americans or upper-income voters.
Take Blacksburg, Va., home to the more than 30,000 students at Virginia Tech. The Obama campaign has directed a student-centric ad titled "Gotta Vote" at Hulu viewers in that zip code. The ad is clearly designed to reach young people already likely to support Obama and encourage them to show up at the polls.
Hulu also offers interactivity that is absent in television viewing. Advertisers can use the Hulu Ad-Selector to let viewers choose which of several spots they'd like to see during their program.
"Our users tend to be very engaged and very interactive," Kendall said. "And just the nature of Hulu as a platform, you get a lot more interaction if you're watching on your computer and you can click and choose your ad. It's just more engaging as a platform."
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