Courtesy of Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

Still from "Family Matters"

November 3, 2020

How Television Becomes a Tool for Targeting Voters

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The 2020 presidential election has seen an immense amount of television advertising from both President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaigns. With the diversity of television programming on both broadcast and cable television, politicians have to carefully consider which content they want to place campaign advertisements alongside. Whether targeting reliable voters to reaffirm their support or appealing to unlikely voters to convince them to change their voting plans, politicians must strategize to maximize the impact of their political advertisements. 

Unsurprisingly, both campaigns placed many advertisements during news and weather programming. Informational programming tends to draw viewers from across the political spectrum, so placing advertisements alongside such programs allows political campaigns to target a variety of potential voters. On the other hand, television programming such as sitcoms, dramas, comedy shows, game shows and other programming intended for entertainment rather than information tend to draw narrower audiences. Analyzing the content of such shows can provide reasonable assumptions about the audiences of each show, such as demographic composition or even political views. 

Art consumption becomes almost weaponized by revealing information about its audience to political candidates, who intend to use that information to target specific groups of potential viewers. 

Some of the most popular fictional programming targeted by the political campaigns have included sitcoms. Both candidates have placed high numbers of advertisements during popular The Big Bang Theory. During its run, this show was quite popular, and both campaigns seem to hope that reruns of the show continue to be viewed by large audiences. 

President Trump has also targeted sitcoms Two and a Half Men and The Andy Griffith Show

The latter, having come out in the 1960s, especially appeals to older audiences who are known to support conservative candidates. President Trump’s campaign is aware of which audiences are composed of voters who are likely to support the President’s re-election; the campaign is able to target shows that appeal to potential voters, revealing the campaign’s goals of recognizing which groups to reaffirm support amongst. 

Many of the sitcoms that Biden has chosen to place ads spots next to, such as Family Matters, Good Times and The Bernie Mac Show, have casts composed of mostly Black actors. Biden’s campaign hopes to appeal to Black voters, and targeting these shows with advertisements indicates an attempt to reach African-American audiences. These sitcoms, which were created as a source of entertainment, are now being used by political campaigns to identify and target African-American voters. 

Aside from fictional programming, President Trump has placed numerous advertisement spots next to the true crime series The First 48. Centered around detectives investigating murder cases, this television show tends to portray law enforcement in a more positive light. With a significant part of the President’s platform focusing on law enforcement, specifically in regards to police around the country, the President’s campaign seems to be seeking audiences who would support this platform. If the media they consume indicates support of law enforcement, President Trump’s campaign hopes to reaffirm this support to convince voters to support the President’s re-election. Though the television series itself does not discuss politics, its content is easily connected to current political issues, allowing political campaigns to utilize advertisements strategically to appeal to the show’s viewers.  

Additionally, President Trump has also aired over 1,000 advertisement spots alongside comedy program The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Colbert, a comedian who has been exceedingly vocal in criticizing President Trump on his show, even mentioned his surprise over this choice of advertisement spots. Viewers of Colbert’s show are almost guaranteed to oppose or at least dislike President Trump — something that his campaign is likely aware of. Choosing to target this audience reveals the campaign’s hopes to convert likely Biden voters towards voting for the President’s re-election. Whether or not this strategy succeeds remains to be seen; however, this situation reveals how audiences reveal their political preferences simply by choosing to consume media. 

Despite the variety of programming targeted by political advertisements, the intentions of each political campaign remains the same: Identifying groups of voters and crafting messages to convince them to vote for each campaign’s respective candidate. Despite many of the aforementioned television programs being politically neutral, the content hints towards either the demographics or opinions of the audience, allowing political campaigns to target certain demographic groups or certain viewers with the hopes of persuading their voting patterns.

Political campaigns weaponize art that was created with the purpose of entertainment and enjoyment and utilize their political advertisements to turn that same art into a political tool. Unfortunately, in today’s polarized and politicized society, it is nearly impossible for mainstream media such as television programs to exist without being touched by politics. Audiences cannot avoid being targeted by political campaigns, but as long as they understand how their viewing preferences influence the perception of their identities or opinions by political campaigns, they will be able to recognize how and why they are targeted by such political advertisements. 


Aditi Hukerikar is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]