October 9, 2019
While determining the best media for a client is always done on a case-by-case basis (considering budget, efficacy and ROI as starting points), this is a great opportunity to take a look at the omnipresent political ads that have been filling our airwaves, mailboxes, scenic vistas and browsers. Thankfully (except for the media companies), the end is near.
The point of advertising and marketing is simply to inform the prospective consumer of your product or service, remind or make them aware of a pain they may be unaware of, and persuade them that your product/solution is the best. Doing it right is a bit more complicated, but that’s the essence of marketing.
This post is not about the efficacy of political advertising; arguments can be made that they do indeed inform the voter and encourage debate. Instead, the purpose is to bring to light some trends, and the rationale behind them.
What strikes me most during this (and recent) campaigns are the increasingly vicious attack ads run by both parties. While the attack ad is nothing new (see Goldwater/Johnson, 1964), instead of building up their own qualities, policies, and capabilities, candidates are tarnishing their opponent’s.
Marshall McLuhan (most known for ‘The Medium is the Message’ and ‘The Global Village’) presciently said that (remember, this was 50 years ago) political television ads would not have to focus on candidates’ policies, capabilities or their party… just the charisma of the candidate. He defined ‘charisma’ as the property of being relatable; the quality of looking like or reminding the viewer of someone they knew and trusted. It’s been fascinating to watch the chosen (often distorted) images of the candidate being attacked. Invariably, when smearing another candidate, the images are unflattering, to say the least. The supported candidate is always shown in the most flattering light.
Image is only part of the equation, though. Motive is another. In keeping with the political theme, as we learned during Watergate, to find the truth, you need to ‘follow the money.’
When there’s an ad for Cheerios on TV, there’s no doubt that General Mills is behind it. Their motive is transparent (buy more Cheerios). When a product can cause harm, it must be clearly stated in the ad (think: cigarette warnings/professional driver on a closed course). Pretty straightforward, right?
With the recent rise of Super PAC money, following the money has become an exercise in futility. Money can be spent limitlessly as funds can be raised from individuals, corporations or unions with NO limit on donation size. Without digging deeper, the voter has no idea of the actual agenda of many of the advertisers.
With boundless funds and exponentially more media outlets, the prevalence and secrecy behind attack ads can’t be described as anything but disturbing, and the trend shows no signs of anything but exponential growth. With Congressional approval at an all-time low, and trust in government and media waning, it’s hard to envision a time when civil discourse will ever be a part of the political advertising equation if, indeed it ever was (even the Lincoln Douglas debates were victim of the partisan press of the day).
As social media and online marketing have entered the equation, there have been a couple of surprises (to me, at least). According to a recent Pew study, compared to conservatives, liberals are about 30% more likely to ‘unfriend’ someone whose political views are extremely different than their own. I would have bet (and lost) big on that one.
The other surprise has been in online media. In closely contested markets, content sites are out of banner ad inventory in battleground markets with hot senate races (NY Times, October 11, 2014). Yes, the well of eyeballs has actually run dry (to what effect still remains to be determined).
On the other end of the shouting, smearing spectrum, by going online, the fact-finding voter can ‘self-select’ and find limitless information on the candidates and the issues. There are even online ‘calculators’ that can help voters decide which candidates best align with their values.
Perhaps there’s hope, yet.