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December 8, 2019,

Google changed its targeting policies to shine a light on political ads, but campaigns are now eyeing more opaque platforms

Originally published on CNBC.

Google’s new limitations on political advertisements won’t stop digital strategists like Jonathan Barnes from buying on its properties, but it will likely drive more dollars toward platforms with less ad transparency to the general public.

Barnes, the advertising director for political ad firm Authentic Brands, which has worked for campaigns including Kamala Harris’ presidential bid, said he uses a common strategy of uploading public voter files for Google to match to online profiles to be targeted with relevant ads.

Now that Google has promised to eliminate that function and limited political advertisers to targeting users solely on the basis of age, gender and location, Barnes said, “You’re still doing the list matching, but it’s just more convoluted and less transparent really because it’s not through Google.”

That’s because political advertisers can still use more expansive targeting methods on Google by purchasing their key demographics through other service providers, known as demand-side platforms (DSPs) that offered by companies like Centro and The Trade Desk. DSPs can purchase inventory available through Google’s ad exchange, but not in its “walled gardens” that are only available through Google’s own tools, like YouTube or search.

The irony is, while Google and Facebook have been pressured into developing searchable ad archives in the wake of a presidential election cycle plagued by fake news and attempted influence by foreign actors, new pressure from lawmakers and academics to limit micro-targeting capabilities is pushing political strategists to look toward smaller or newer digital products with even less transparency. That’s because there’s no standardized requirement for digital ad providers to disclose political spending on their products as legislation addressing the issue is still making its way through Congress.

“While Facebook and Google have some level of transparency, the rest of the industry has nothing, and I think that’s often overlooked,” said Megan Clasen, vice president of digital at GMMB, a political strategy agency that worked on President Barack Obama’s campaigns.

A Google spokesperson confirmed that any of its inventory bought through a third-party DSP would be subject to that platform’s targeting and transparency standards, rather than Google’s itself. That means even though Google has a hand in serving the ad, it won’t show up in its transparency report and could include deeper levels targeting than Google will allow elsewhere on its services.

Political strategists on both sides of the aisle say they still expect digital advertising spend to rise even as their targeting options become more limited by Google itself. The targeting traits still available on Google are valuable to political advertisers, if not as robust. But many said they do plan to look more closely at alternative services that will help them reach potential voters and donors despite weakened tools from the tech giant.

Ultimately, the debate over political ad targeting and transparency has highlighted how the digital advertising market has been left to regulate itself.

While rules around commercial advertising and political ads on traditional platforms are more defined, the law has yet to catch up with the new advertising capabilities for political campaigns in the digital age. A group of senators have introduced a bill called the Honest Ads Act that would standardize transparency requirements for digital platforms that run political ads, but it’s currently in legislative limbo.

Political advertisers and digital platforms alike are eager for the government to step in. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has explicitly called on Congress to provide clearer guidelines so that digital platforms no longer need to make calls that will inevitably anger some of their users or clients. And political advertisers say a government standard would provide them clarity and stability to strategize and execute their plans.

“The scale of Facebook and the targeting capabilities have entirely reshaped how we raise money as a [Democratic] party, and so to remove those would just undercut us,” said Barnes. “And it’s horrible to be at the whim of a big corporation like that.”

In the meantime, digital advertising services are defining their own rules.

“To the degree that we’re going to enter this market, we will be imposing a set of guardrails for ourselves,” said Danny Sepulveda, senior vice president of policy and advocacy at MediaMath, which supports the principles of the Honest Ads Act.

To be sure, just because there aren’t rules in place doesn’t mean platforms are allowing a free-for-all of political ads. MediaMath does not allow false or deceptive advertising on its platform for commercial or political advertisers, for example, and is considering whether targeting restrictions may be appropriate for political ads on its service. The Trade Desk and Centro both have minimum audience sizes political advertisers are allowed to target.

But third-party providers often don’t have their own transparency reports on political ads, and there’s nothing stopping them from allowing micro-targeting capabilities. Grace Briscoe, head of Centro’s candidates and causes division, said Google wouldn’t have a way to restrict or monitor additional targeting layers applied by an external DSP.

“I think most of the companies are looking to each other, looking to the walled gardens, looking to guidance from the trades to define those policies,” said MediaMath CEO Joe Zawadzki, “and doing it in short order because here we are entering into 2020.”

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