How Did Hillary Clinton Screw This Up? For Starters, Her Advertising Was All Wrong

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So where did Hillary Clinton go wrong? Other than, well, being Hillary Clinton -- a widely disliked and distrusted candidate?

Ad Age Editor Ken Wheaton just asked me if I thought Donald Trump's triumph is about "traditional advertising and millions in spending being useless."

My short answer: Actually, no.

My longer answer is that, while Donald Trump obviously benefited from an unprecedented level of free media coverage, which convinced him for much of the race that he didn't need to waste money on ads, in the end Team Trump did plow a ton of money into advertising -- and it cunningly, strategically outperformed tone-deaf Team Clinton.

To put that another way, Clinton badly screwed up her ad game.

Given that I've spent the last 38 weeks, along with Ad Age Datacenter's Kevin Brown, deeply immersed in presidential campaign TV and radio ad spending data for AdAge.com's every-Friday Campaign Ad Scorecard reports (here's the most recent edition), I have some strong opinions about this. In fact, two months ago, in a cover story for Ad Age titled "Yes He Can? Here's How Trump Could Win," I suggested that the Clinton campaign's use of its vast ad budget to hammer away at Trump for being, basically, an asshole, was then already running out of steam.

I specifically cited one of the Clinton camp's most praised -- and most heavily budgeted -- ads, titled "Role Models," which showed innocent little children watching Donald Trump say nasty things on TV, before serving up a tagline: "Our children are watching. What example will we set for them?" As I wrote in September,

What the Clinton campaign seems to forget is that Donald Trump announced his candidacy a long time ago (June 16, 2015) and he's said hundreds of outrageous things since then, and we're all used to it by now. We're inoculated to it. Spending money to try to crank up the outrage machine over Outrageous Donald is probably not going to move the needle at this point. And, again, there's a condescension factor at play (are you saying I'm a bad parent if I support Donald Trump?!).

It seemed like every ad that Clinton and her allies released in the ensuing months was simply a variation on the theme that Donald Trump is a big jerk. In fact, as recently as Sunday, Clinton's campaign released a video titled "10 minutes of Donald Trump demeaning, objectifying, and insulting women."

Whereas Trump's campaign released dead-simple, exceedingly traditional ads related to Big Issues. In Trump's first TV commercial of the general election, a narrator declared that "In Hillary Clinton's America, the system stays rigged against Americans. Syrian refugees flood in. Illegal immigrants convicted of committing crimes get to stay, collecting Social Security benefits, skipping the line...." In contrast, "Donald Trump's America is secure. Terrorists and dangerous criminals kept out. The border secure. Our families safe...."

A follow-up commercial in the same mold about the economy declared that "In Hillary Clinton's America, the middle class gets crushed, spending goes up, taxes go up, hundreds of thousands of jobs disappear. It's more of the same, but worse. In Donald Trump's America, working families get tax relief, millions of new jobs created, wages go up, small businesses thrive. The American dream, achievable. Change that makes America great again."

The way I saw it, Trump the candidate may have been erratic, but Trump the advertiser was all about highly effective (for its target audience) message discipline -- whereas Clinton's message discipline was basically, Trump is awful. And I'm your only hope. And, Sorry (kinda) about that private email server.

The irony is that the Clinton camp actually did have highly detailed plans of attack regarding the economy, ISIS and more -- in contrast to Trump's silly, empty "I alone can fix it"-style declarations. But, again, the Clinton campaign put all its advertising and messaging eggs in one basket -- one, ahem, deplorable basket -- creating a Clinton-branding vacuum that Trump and his allies were more than happy to fill with relentless messaging about her corruption.

In September, I suggested that Trump was "conserving cash for an October all-out attack-ad blowout against 'Crooked Hillary.' Because, why wouldn't he? Clinton is giving Trump all the ammunition he needs. Those ads, like Hillary's Donald-is-a-big-crazy-meanie ads, are going to write themselves."

That, of course, is exactly what happened -- except it became more of an October-plus-early-November blitz, and FBI Director James Comey showed up at the 11th hour to pour gasoline on the smoldering "Crooked Hillary" narrative.

Take a look at this rather stunning Trump ad released on Nov. 3:

Clinton, hyperfocused on pointing out the obvious -- that Trump is crude and unpredictable -- let Trump define who she is to millions of voters.

One more thing: The Clinton campaign's condescension backfired badly -- the "basket of deplorables" revolted against her. Hillary Clinton not only misread white, working-class America, she misread American pop culture, how many real Americans think and talk, and why many real Americans embrace antiheroes.

I thought about this recently in a Dunkin' Donuts that I frequent near my apartment in Manhattan -- one of the few non-precious places to grab a cup of coffee left in my mostly gentrified downtown neighborhood. It's a place where, over the past several months, I've had random political conversations with blue-collar workers (including, just last week, a non-union steelworker in town to help erect a luxury hotel) who would never step into a Blue Bottle artisanal coffee shop, let alone a Starbucks.

I've also overheard all kinds of random conversations there regarding the presidential election. One recent line that sticks out: "I fucking love Donald Trump," which was stated all loud and proud by a burly thirtysomething who was sitting at a table drinking coffee and eating donuts with two other men and a woman a few weeks back.

He said that in response to the woman who had just said how "gross" and "rude" Trump is; it was obvious that he was declaring that he fucking loves Trump precisely because he is gross and rude. Because Donald Trump is the embodiment of the American ego and the id circa 2016 for large swaths of the country.

In a way, Hillary Clinton's campaign was a big "fuck you" to guys like him, in its scolding, schoolmarmish insistence that there was something wrong with you if you could like a guy like Donald Trump.

Simon Dumenco, aka Media Guy, is an Ad Age editor-at-large. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.