After all, with Mitt Romney on the brink of having to sell the biggest decision of his presidential campaign -- his choice of running mate -- and President Barack Obama struggling to present a compelling substitute for hope and change, it's as good a time as any to look at why Madison Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue approach advertising so differently. Sterling Cooper may have worked pro bono for the 1960 Nixon campaign, but the last presidential contender to give real Mad Men a lead role was Bill Bradley 12 years ago.
At base, my friend offered, selling a candidate is no different from selling toothpaste. The shared goal is to help consumers see the personal benefit they'll gain from the decision, whether it's a good-paying job or fewer cavities.
But the similarity ends there. Between corporate and political advertising, the definition of success, and particularly the means used to achieve it, are growing further apart with each passing cycle. On many fronts, the corporate and political approaches have become diametrically opposed, a development expedited by the surging role of outside groups in political advertising since McCain-Feingold was enacted in 2002. "Traditional" ad agencies are not given -- and indeed, most might not want -- prominent roles in today's political campaigns.
Let's start with market share. A brand of toothpaste can succeed with a small share, but in a two-candidate race, even a 49.9% share is a loss, plain and simple. Put another way, for toothpaste, the difference between 49.9% and 50.1% is nothing. In politics, it's everything.
Political advertisements are patches in a crazy quilt, created and targeted to stitch together diverse audiences into a coalition that comprises the winning market share. Corporate brand advertisers often target their ads narrowly and deeply to activate core consumers. In many cases, they have the luxury of appealing to like-minded audiences and don't need to broaden their appeal to be successful. At the same time, big brands also need broad geographic reach, while presidential ads are focused on swing states -- for this election, only a third of our nation's DMAs.
The two camps buy accordingly: while corporate advertisers can execute focused buys to reach narrower audiences, political advertisers must always buy at high volume to reach broad audiences within their geographic targets.
People generally need toothpaste, whether they stay loyal to a brand or not. But as Election Day looms, eligible voters who remain undecided don't need to vote and aren't necessarily paying attention. In our era of too-close-to-call elections, those voters are the Holy Grail. An escalation of ads is necessary to reach them and drive their decision-making. Political advertising thus increasingly rewards the buying process and tonnage.
The content of political advertising is increasingly driven by opposition research and breaking news. In corporate advertising, it's rare to see an ad that directly attacks a competitor; in 2012 presidential advertising, it's rare to see an ad that does not. This goes back to market share and the zero-sum nature of American politics. In corporate advertising, whacking one mole may boost another. In campaign advertising, there's just one mole and your mission is to destroy it.
Unlike their corporate counterparts, political advertisers benefit from a constantly replenished trove of news coverage about their opponents which they're able to convert into ads in close to real time. (See the numerous stories about outsourcing while Romney was at Bain Capital.) The same goes for bloopers by the candidates themselves. (See Obama's comment that "the private sector is doing fine.")
Political advertisers constantly churn out ads. Once up, an ad may air in one market for one day; other ads may be released to the media and make the evening news without a single dollar being spent to air them. Corporate advertisers take, well, longer to produce spots that are components of vast marketing campaigns. A presidential campaign is a marketing campaign unto itself.
The publicity game
You don't see corporate advertisers publicizing their ad buys -- and frankly, you didn't used to see political advertisers do this either. The proliferation of well-financed outside groups has changed that . In just the past 10 days, we've learned of a $77 million fall ad buy by the Obama campaign, another $30 million on top of that by pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA, and $25 million in August by conservative 501(c)(4) Americans for Prosperity.
Outside groups leak their buys to telegraph their plans to the like-minded advertisers they're prohibited from coordinating with under campaign finance law. More striking was the $77 million leak from the Obama campaign, which probably felt a need to demonstrate fundraising muscle and reassure key donors in the face of the swelling tide of GOP ad spending.
Unlike in corporate America, where ad buys are trade secrets, the pace of political advertising mitigates the risk in publicizing buys. Closing in on Election Day, campaigns and other stakeholders will redistribute buys several times per day.
As close as the press corps is coming to breaking the news of ad buys in real time, they'll never match the speed of the buyers themselves unless they're tapping the phones of top strategists.
One final -- but major -- difference is in volume. In the universe of political advertising, numbers like $77 million, $30 million and $25 million are eye-popping. In the real world, per Kantar Media Intelligence's Chief Research Officer Jon Swallen, $132 million is less than what a major automaker spends on advertising in two months, and less than what the auto insurance industry spends in two weeks.
But even if political advertisers' budgets are smaller, their influence is certainly pretty great. After all, how many Mad Men get to brush their teeth on Inauguration Day morning knowing they've helped elect the President of the United States?