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One of the more interesting things to observe in the latest round of skirmishing about political advertising has been the effort to find out if parties are paying to place their ads on mainstream TV networks. Members of the Twitterverse are asked to report if they've seen the anti-Trudeau ad and the anti-anti-Trudeau ad on actual TV, instead of "just on the Internet."

The implication is that if the ads are not bought and paid for on traditional TV, they won't matter much. Too few people will see them and they are mostly a cheap publicity stunt: aimed at getting media to provide free exposure. The kind of thing only cash-strapped parties would do.

This line of thinking made sense in the last election cycle, but not for much longer.

Among many tumultuous changes in the media marketplace, the rising tide of digital advertising is one of the most profound. The impact has been most obvious in print media as readers and advertisers migrate to digital platforms, at a pace as disruptive and painful as it is inexorable.

But the speed of change in TV has momentum too. It's getting hard to define just what is TV anymore.

New content and distribution players (the line increasingly blurry) emerge every month, from companies such as Amazon, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Netflix. YouTube loads 72 hours of new content onto the Internet every minute.

Ask anyone under the age of 30 what they are planning on watching on TV on any given night, and you might get a blank stare. Not long ago people knew which nights of the week featured their favourite TV lineup and organized their lives accordingly. Today, 75 million Americans watch online video on a typical day, many of them choosing their own programs and making their own prime time schedules.

This migration of consumers and content to the Internet will revolutionize how our political parties pitch their arguments, and fairly quickly, for a few reasons.

First, for now anyway, it costs a lot less. Second, it's easier to target voters you can win and avoid paying to reach those you can't. Finally, there's interactivity: a great ad can instantly raise a buck, create a new supporter or party member, cause people to share a thought with their friends or followers.

Data on the pace of this change in Canada is still sparse, but numbers from the U.S. tell an interesting story.

  • While overall advertising revenues grew by 3 per cent last year, spending on Internet advertising grew by 15 per cent, the third straight year of double-digit growth. Online video advertising jumped 29 per cent. In 2012, three trillion online video ads were delivered. How to put that in context? It’s roughly three trillion more than happened 10 years ago.
  • According to the folks at Nielsen, online video ads outperform TV ads for message recall and likeability, the gold standards of effectiveness. If people tell you they ignore or skip through online video ads, the data suggest that 87 per cent of the time, that isn’t happening. Unlike watching TV with a remote in hand, if you are streaming your favourite program you may have to stay with an ad to see the content you chose to watch. And, because of the superior targeting the Internet allows, chances are better that the ad you are served will interest you.
  • The benefits for public affairs advertisers are in some ways even better than for consumer product companies. Large numbers of people spend plenty of hours streaming video from news and information sites.
  • By the start of 2012, the Obama campaign was delivering an average of a billion display ads a month to voters, rising to 2.5 billion in the month of October. The Romney campaign peaked at 409 million in July.

Today, traditional TV platforms still account for the largest proportion of overall advertising dollars, but the gap is narrowing. In politics, the smartest campaigners are thinking not about how they can raise the millions they need to pump into TV ads for 37 days in 2015, but how they can target the right hearts and minds with potent, cost effective and money raising online advertising, starting right now.

Bruce Anderson is one of Canada's leading pollsters and communications strategists. He is a member of the CBC's popular At Issue Panel, a regular Globe blogger, and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising.