How Politicians Are Using Gas Pumps to Fuel Their Message

Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty

With inflation still a top issue ahead of the 2022 midterm electionsDemocrats have found an unconventional—and potentially risky—place to go on the offensive: the gas pump.

Gas stations across the country have already become a partisan battleground, with Republicans mockingly affixing stickers of President Joe Biden on the pump seemingly taking credit for whatever the price is on any given day.

But politicians are increasingly using the idle time consumers use to fill up their tanks to hit them with an unexpected political ad.

“It’s a captive audience,” a Democratic campaign consultant told The Daily Beast, requesting anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on behalf of their candidates. “I mean, everyone—rich, poor, in the middle—needs to buy gas, and for a relatively low cost, you can hold their attention while they’re standing at the pump.”

The gas station consoles also allow campaigns to re-run ads they’ve already paid for on social media and TV, the campaign consultant explained. And they offer a significant savings when replacing TV ads, especially in a large metro area, where pricing is similar to the impressions-based model on social media.

In Georgia, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams went up with ads in all 12 of the state’s media markets at more than 5,500 gas stations to highlight its position of lifting the state’s 29 cents per gallon sales tax on gasoline.

Alex Floyd, the Abrams campaign’s rapid response director, said in a statement that they were, “[D]dedicated to meeting voters where they are—including at the gas pump” where she has advocated extending a suspension of the gas tax through the end of the year.

Floyd said the campaign will continue to use the ads to emphasize “putting money in Georgians’ pockets and not raising taxes,” in addition to suspending the gas tax through the end of 2022.

Representative Elisa Slotkin (D-MI), the campaign operative said, began running ads at gas stations in 2020. The ad features Slotkin pretending to knock on the glass to grab a voter’s attention while filling up.

The Slotkin campaign did not return a request for comment.

Back in 2008, Gas Station TV rejected an ad buy from then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, according to the Miami Herald. Former CEO David Leider cited the importance of providing “traditional advertisers with a clutter-free environment to showcase their brands” as the presidential campaigns saturated the swing state with ads.

Most of the ads the consultant placed up until last month were designed to counter GOP messaging on inflation, such as tying an incumbent Republican lawmaker to a vote against a House bill to prevent gas companies from price gouging consumers. But over the past few weeks, the messaging focus at the pump has shifted to abortion rights, Biden’s legislative wins such as the infrastructure bill, or whatever the campaign feels their strongest issue might be.

“You could use it for anything,” the campaign consultant said. “But we’re now at a turning point where inflation and economics focused messaging is not where you wanna focus your messaging if you’re doing an ad buy.”

Although gas station advertising is far from common in national campaigns, the strategy is part of a broader shift as more Americans cut the cable cord from cable and never turn on the radio while driving.

Erika Franklin Fowler, director of the Wesleyan Media Project and one of the foremost scholars on political advertising in the United States, pointed to a pattern of an increasingly scattered audience as the TV ad market cools off.

“While the volume of advertising on television in the 2022 election shows few signs of slowing down, there is little doubt that audiences are fragmenting into smaller segments,” Fowler told The Daily Beast. “As such, advertisers will continue to look for additional, creative ways to touch prospective voters through as many means as possible.”

“That said,” Fowler continued, “you can only reach so many voters through yard signs in the video game Animal Crossing, which was a tactic used in the 2020 election, but you can probably reach many more prospective voters at the gas pump. “

Gas Station TV (GSTV) is the main broker in the space, boasting more than 28,000 locations and 104 million monthly viewers.

“We think of each station as an addressable household,” CEO Sean McCaffrey said when the service experienced a boom in sales at the outset of the pandemic.

A spokesperson for GSTV would not disclose any internal numbers when asked about any uptick in political spending this cycle.

“GSTV has not seen any marked increase in political advertising during this cycle,” the company said in a statement. “We do accept political ads, but any partisan attack ads are not accepted based on our editorial policy.”

The company, which is classified as at home advertising, also does not have an FCC license, a representative told The Daily Beast. With the consoles falling outside the “electromagnetic spectrum” covered under the federal agency, Gas Station TV does not have to abide by offering “equal time” for federal races or other regulations.

An FCC representative asked The Daily Beast for additional information about GSTV, including whether they have a license, before declining to comment.

Going negative on gas station ads has not been a problem for the campaign consultant, who pointed to the short format of the spots, which ranges from 15 to around 45 seconds.

“I would say it’s more effective that way, in part, because it’s a more succinct message,” the operative said. “If you only have 15 or 20 seconds, it’s hard to introduce a challenger. Maybe quick bio ad for an incumbent, but not a good time to introduce a character.”

Experimentation with gas station ads is also becoming more important for campaigns trying to reach voters they might otherwise miss in more conventional channels.

Campaigns dabbling in the market may have been spurred by the inflation messaging and those seemingly ubiquitous Biden stickers, but the strategy goes beyond countering the GOP on rising prices.

“So certainly the Biden stickers on gas stations is an element of it,” the consultant said.

The venue of the gas pump, while a strong thematic fit for this cycle, is more about reaching chord cutters along with a busy and distracted electorate.

“Our voters, or the voters we’re trying to swing to our way, aren’t watching a whole lot of TV—either because of the cost of cable or because of their work lives,” the consultant continued.

“Meeting voters in a way that’s much more accessible to them at a lower price point is something that campaigns are always looking for.”

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