Digital Media Is the Big Winner in Israel's Election Campaign

Viral videos fight it out on the Web, overshadowing traditional TV spots.

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A few minutes after the report on the government's failures in the housing market came out, MKs Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism left the party’s campaign headquarters. They went out into the courtyard.

There Gafni’s aide pulled out his smartphone and filmed the two men reacting to the state comptroller's report. A few minutes later the phones of people belonging to the Ultra-Orthodox WhatsApp group vibrated, alerting them to the footage of the MKs.

This tactic, which cost almost nothing, is an extreme example of the 2015 campaign model: low-cost videos going viral. Likud, center-left Zionist Union and left-wing Meretz have invested in clips, too, but they've been spending more money and have advertising agencies behind them.

After the media splash over Likud’s Bibi-sitter video, Meretz’s dancing party, the dubbing of Isaac Herzog with a deep voice and Shas’ transparent people, the official campaign on television and radio kicked off Tuesday. It will run through March 16, the day before the vote. Channel 10 will broadcast ads at 6 P.M., Channel 1 at 10:30 P.M. and Channel 2 at 11 P.M.

The official campaign broadcasts remain a main stage for spurring public interest, and the parties are spending decent sums.

The big money for funding the campaigns comes from the government. For the 2013 election, the government gave the parties around 195 million shekels ($49 million) for this purpose, with funds calculated based in part on parties' number of MKs in the previous Knesset.

Analysts estimate that this time around government funding will reach between 180 million shekels and 200 million shekels, of which 100 million shekels will go to advertising and publicity. In addition, every party receives small sums from contributions; in 2013 this number reached the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of shekels per party.

This year the big money is going to digital media, with funds targeted for the purchase of media placement and time, and the production of ads and videos. “Most of our budget goes to digital activities,” says Shai Even, the head of Meretz's campaign.

Even includes the production of videos in his digital budget. All told, Meretz has dished out about 1 million shekels on media buying, split evenly between digital and the old-fashioned way: newspapers and billboards.

Yesh Atid the top digital spender

An analysis conducted for TheMarker by Ifat Advertising Monitoring shows that Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party has spent the most on buying Internet media, mostly banner ads on websites. (This sum does not include the cost of producing ads, consultants and creative design.)

In February, the centrist party spent more than 500,000 shekels, a sum similar to Yesh Atid's layout the month before the 2013 election. Zionist Union, on the other hand, has spent 333,000 shekels on digital ads, less than it spent in 2013.

The other parties have spent much less. Yahad Ha'am Itanu, Meretz and Yisrael Beiteinu spent only tens of thousands of shekels, while Likud and Shas have spent nothing on banner ads.

Ifat also monitored the parties' spending on Internet video. This research was conducted from February 1 to February 26 using Ifat’s new technology. Many of the parties' videos go viral, but some parties are investing in video on major websites, too.

The party that spent the most on Internet video in February was Yesh Atid at 349,000 shekels, which brought the centrist party exposure to 1.2 million viewers. Some 40% of Yesh Atid’s Internet spending went to the Walla website.

The second biggest spender on Internet videos was Zionist Union at 97,000 shekels, with 75% spent on the Mako website. This gave Zionist Union, a partnership between Herzog's Labor Party and Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah party, exposure to half a million people. Ultra-Orthodox party Shas and Likud each spent about 70,000 shekels on Internet video.

Alongside the parties' campaigns, non-parliamentary groups are investing in online video campaigns more than many parties themselves, says Nati Yaakobi, chief executive of Ifat Media Monitoring.

“On the Internet you create clips that are meant to go viral, but you can't do that on television. On the other hand, on television there are messages that may not be viral, but they're very specific," Yaakobi says.

"In any case, we've made all our videos in exactly the same format for television. There's stuff we saved for television, which will appear on the Internet later. The television election campaign started three months ago, but it's actually ‘the new television.’”

During the campaign period, billboards and other outdoor advertising come into their own as well. For most of the year, outdoor advertising reaps only about 5% of business ad spending — just 198 million shekels in 2014. But during the election campaign, outdoor advertising is in great demand.

Still, this campaign will be remembered for the videos that hit the Web well before the TV campaign. Some of those efforts cost a lot to produce — the main expense being the outlays for writing and production, while distribution costs little or nothing.

Costly Bibi-sitter

For example, the Bibi-sitter video starring Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cost between 50,000 shekels and 70,000 shekels to produce, but many of the clips posted to the Internet today cost much less. They require no more than a cameraman, sound person and simple editing at an expense of only a few thousand shekels.

As a result, producers and directors are no longer making the haul they once made from an election campaign, say people in the media business.

In the past, parties would hire directors and cameramen for a month and a half, says Idan Or, the head of the Israel Association of Cinema and Television Professionals. They would put them in special studios rented for the campaign and pay each of them about 100,000 shekels.

Media consultants, meanwhile, say the sums they're receiving for this election campaign are lower than in the past.

One of the biggest scandals of this year’s campaign has been the leaks from Zionist Union's election headquarters. It started with the report that the Peer Levin public relations agency would receive an astonishing 1.4 million shekels for managing the party’s campaign, though later that sum was cut. Then advertising guru Reuven Adler was appointed to run the campaign; he reportedly will be paid hundreds of thousands of shekels.

“Instead of hundreds of thousands of shekels, the sums have turned into tens of thousands of shekels,” says a senior media executive.

Strategic advisers still key

A media adviser says that there are “no bonanzas in this market” — experienced advisers with large staffs can still receive large sums from the big parties, but in general the take is lower.

The big money is moving to digital advertising and videos from public relations, adds an executive in the business.

“The budgets have dropped. Even in advertising they have fallen for everyone," he says. "The parties want to save money and avoid getting into trouble over money. It’s not like it used to be when the budgets never ran out.”

But Moshe Debi, a veteran media adviser, says the drop in fees does not necessarily mean a drop in demand.

“No doubt the role of the strategic adviser is essential, and they need the most senior people," Debi says. "The relationship between the candidate, the party chairman and his strategic adviser is critical for the campaign's success. The trust must be high. He's putting his political future in the other guy's hands.”

One business that continued doing well during this campaign is the polling industry. The media are bombarding voters with more polls than ever.

Since the Knesset voted in December to call a new election, television stations, the major newspapers and others have conducted around 90 polls. Oddly enough, the two most widely read newspapers, Yedioth Ahronoth and Israel Hayom, have conducted only one poll each.