Pandora Knows How You’ll Vote, and It’s Not Keeping Your Secret

The online music service is telling campaigns what music you listen to, which they say gives away your party affiliation.

Daft Punk arrives at Walt Disney's 'TRON: Legacy' World Premiere held at the El Capitan Theatre on December 11, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.
National Journal
Alex Brown
Feb. 19, 2014, 12:10 a.m.

Sick of cam­paign ads on the ra­dio? Don’t plan on turn­ing to Pan­dora to get a break from this fall’s elec­tion-com­mer­cial frenzy.

The mu­sic stream­ing ser­vice an­nounced last week it is launch­ing tar­geted ad­vert­ising — al­low­ing can­did­ates to reach voters based on age, loc­a­tion, and mu­sic pref­er­ence. Ac­cord­ing to Pan­dora, that in­form­a­tion can tell with 75-80 per­cent ac­cur­acy how a per­son will vote.

“What we’re try­ing to do is make it so that the tar­get­ing that’s se­lec­ted by these cam­paigns is … reach­ing the right groups,” said Pan­dora’s Jack Kraw­czyk. The com­pany’s ad­vert­ising sys­tem weights its res­ults based on users’ ZIP codes; an area that voted 60 per­cent for Obama will have that factored in­to its res­id­ents’ vot­ing prob­ab­il­it­ies.

Then Pan­dora looks at your mu­sic. Listen to a lot of coun­try? You’re prob­ably a strong Re­pub­lic­an voter. Prefer jazz? You likely vote Demo­crat. Clas­sic rock or hip-hop? Well, you’re a little harder to pin down — but that might be just what ad-makers are look­ing for.

Pan­dora is the latest con­tent pro­vider to try to cash in on polit­ic­al op­er­at­ives’ de­sire for pre­ci­sion mes­saging. Dir­ecTV and Dish Net­work are of­fer­ing “ad­dress­able ad­vert­ising” for statewide cam­paigns, al­low­ing can­did­ates to tail­or a mes­sage down to the neigh­bor­hood level.

But just be­cause an al­gorithm thinks it knows how you’ll vote, do you really want to get bom­barded with cam­paign ads for your (prob­able) can­did­ate of choice? Do you lay off the hip-hop so the com­puter doesn’t identi­fy you as a coveted swing voter?

It’s not that Pan­dora hasn’t played host to cam­paign ads be­fore. But the voter tar­get­ing makes it more likely cam­paigns will look to it as a worth­while ad­vert­ising in­vest­ment. The more a cam­paign knows about you, the harder it’s will­ing to work to pur­sue your vote — more know­ledge gives op­er­at­ives a bet­ter idea of where they’re in­vest­ing their money.

So while it might be frus­trat­ing to have your demo­graph­ics put you in a cam­paign’s crosshairs, it’s quite luc­rat­ive for Pan­dora. “The more you re­duce the risk that you’re not hit­ting the right audi­ence, the high­er the will­ing­ness to pay,” Kraw­czyk said.

An­oth­er pos­sib­il­ity — at least ac­cord­ing to one cam­paign op­er­at­ive who has worked with Pan­dora — is rolling out ad cam­paigns when artists en­dorse politi­cians. For ex­ample, in the un­likely event Katy Perry en­dorsed Mitch Mc­Con­nell, you might want to steer clear of her mu­sic un­less you wanted to be bom­barded with his cam­paign ads. You might also find it dif­fi­cult to listen to Clay Aiken without hear­ing ads for, well, Clay Aiken.

No mat­ter how an­noy­ing tar­geted ads get for you, they’re a smarter buy for cam­paigns and money in the pock­ets of con­tent pro­viders. So ex­pect to see more, not less, of them in 2014 and bey­ond.

Still, Kraw­czyk pledged to take user feed­back in­to ac­count as Pan­dora rolls out its cam­paign of­fer­ings. “We’re al­ways mon­it­or­ing the ef­fect of our our ad load,” he said. “If we saw that there’s any­thing that’s driv­ing away listen­ing be­ha­vi­or, then we would cer­tainly act ac­cord­ingly.”

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