A Lesson for Brands, From Dog-Eat-Dog Political Campaigns

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In her book Consumer Democracy: The Marketing of Politics, author Margaret Scammell makes the point politicians are marketed and sold to the public in much the same manner as consumer goods. Advertising is key to success, she wrote, although the analogy to consumer brands isn’t perfect: Consumer goods are not usually marketed heavily for a short period of time during which everyone is forced to make a choice and award a multi-year contract to one product, as is the case with elections.

Today, political advertising has become an arms race, with each side trying to outspend the other. Research bears out this concept. A study published in American Politics Research found the vote share rose by about 0.5 percentage points for the candidate with the most television ads running in any given market over the course of an election.

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“It’s a small effect, but it could make a difference in a close election,” the study concluded.

Furthermore, the style of the ad makes a big difference. A study in the American Journal of Political Science found campaign ads that make people feel fear—with ominous music and grainy images of drugs and violence—caused viewers to seek more information about a candidate, while ads that sparked feelings of enthusiasm in viewers—with upbeat music and images of flags and smiling children—reduced viewers’ interest in learning more about candidates’ positions but solidified their support.

“Fear ads heighten attentiveness and weaken people’s reliance on partisan habits, while enthusiasm ads reassure you, and reaffirm the choice you’ve already made,” the study’s author said.

Negative “fear” ads are not new. One of the most infamous of all was the “Daisy” ad in 1964, when Democrat Lyndon Johnson’s presidential campaign broadcast a spot featuring a little girl picking petals off a flower until viewers saw a mushroom cloud in her eye, which implied hawkish Republican Barry Goldwater would push America into a nuclear war.

More recently, in the 2004 presidential race, an interest group supporting George W. Bush broadcast attack ads claiming Democratic candidate John Kerry had lied to obtain some of his medals while serving in the navy during the Vietnam War. Although the allegations were proved false, the commercials permanently damaged Kerry’s reputation and electability.

The current U.S. president is no stranger to ads that make dubious claims. Republican Senator Jeff Flake called a 2018 Trump commercial “sickening” and “a new low in campaigning.” The ad featured old courtroom footage of Luis Bracamontes, an illegal immigrant who was convicted of killing two Sacramento sheriff’s deputies in 2014. The ad said, “Democrats let him into the country. Democrats let him stay.”

Whether or not one believes this type of racially charged campaigning is moral, the facts in this case do not support the commercial’s claims. The cop-killer featured in the incendiary video actually was released by infamous Republican Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s office in 1998 and then re-entered the country during the George W. Bush administration.

Despite patently false claims, the ad’s fear-mongering message worked. “Democrats are welcoming murderous immigrants into our country” was a cornerstone of Trump’s presidential campaign and Republican midterm congressional campaigns. Expect to see the mantra resurrected during the current election cycle.

The sad fact is, today we live in a society that has reduced capacity for thoughtful exploration of issues. This “bumper-sticker” mentality—where people can be convinced by strong, short messages that evoke emotional responses—is especially fruitful for those who run political campaigns and can be utilized by those who manage brands in every other sphere of American business.

Does sharing a Coca-Cola really help you gain more friends? Does using Tide make you a better mother? Does wearing Nike shoes make you a better athlete?

Probably not. But truth matters less than emotional resonance.


Randall HuftRandall Huft is president and creative director of the Innovation Agency. He discovered what works, what doesn’t, and what steps must be taken to achieve sales goals and gain market share while working with blue-chip companies including AT&T, United Airlines, IBM, Walgreen’s, American Express, Toyota, and Disney.

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