Lessons From the Obama Campaign

Plus the Best Sarah Palin Moments of 2008

By Published on .

John McCain
"The fundamentals of our economy are strong."
John McCain
Photo: Nancy Kaszerman

Every marketing-services provider worth his salt is trying to claim a bit of credit for Barack Obama's victory. TV. Web 2.0. Public relations. Social networking. In-game advertising. But it's likely that Barack Obama won because he is Barack Obama. The country was ready for change, and that's what he embodied. Using the same tactics and strategies as Obama, John McCain could have still lost.

"Keep it simple, stupid" is the sort of cliché that induces eye rolling, but it works. Obama was often attacked for being too pensive on the trail or, conversely, for being too vague about the details. While his opponents went through taglines like Chicago goes through corrupt politicians, Obama latched on to "Change" early on and did not veer from the selling proposition or the messaging. The product may have been complex, but the branding was simple and consistent.

With outrage so easy to manufacture these days, marketers are sometimes too quick to respond. While McCain chased news cycles, Obama, on the other hand, tended to take his time before responding. Jeremiah Wright and Obama's own comment about "clinging to religion" would have sunk a lesser candidate. They didn't sink him.

Last year, the talk was about giving consumers control. Team Obama did that -- to a point. While it stuck to its game and stayed on message, it put tools in the hands of its biggest fans so they could get the word out as well -- all with the proper fonts, logos and talking points. It was a unified front. And when folks like Will.i.am jumped into the fray with slick, professionally produced videos, Team Obama did ... nothing.

Oprah may have actually lost viewers by jumping into the political fray. But she undoubtedly convinced a number of fence-sitting viewers that Obama was not, indeed, an Islamic terrorist. It's unlikely she won him the election, but every marketer knows that O's endorsement is worth more than those of 20 politicians combined.

Smart marketers know that consumers sometimes like a little spectacle. If you have the money, a Super Bowl ad is a smart buy. Obama delivered big time by moving his acceptance speech to Invesco Field in Denver, where 80,000 fans thronged to see him. He did it again in Germany. And in St. Louis. A movement is only as big as its gatherings (see also: lines for iPhone).

By their own admission (after the election), the media were in the tank for Obama. Oddly enough, Obama was much more like George W. Bush in the access he allowed to the press. He held them at arm's length, but there was never any perceivable backlash. It's partly because the media leans Democratic, but once again, when they like the product, the story writes itself (see also: Apple products).

For all the talk of change, for all the rhetoric about new media, Obama rode to victory the old-fashioned way: He outspent his opponents, and much of it went to TV. During the primaries, the media focused on Mitt Romney's spending. Romney may have been first among Republicans in spending, but he was second to Obama overall. Obama kept up that spending barrage throughout the election.

Thought I was going to forget that one, didn't you? It's unlikely "traditional" web advertising did the campaign any good. But its masterful use of social networking was being picked apart and studied even before the primaries were over. Of course, it helps to have a former Facebooker on staff. (And, of course, it didn't bring social networks any closer to monetization.) Obama raised millions by cultivating web relationships. He also built a 3 million-strong database.

Barack Obama was a politician running for office. From the budget to the timeline to the strategy, when all is said and done, a political campaign has almost nothing in common with a marketing campaign. Coke can't just ask for money online or get to stop its sales pitch after the first Wednesday in November, can it?

Sarah Palin Moments

"I love those hockey moms. You know, they say the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick." (During her RNC nomination speech)

"Two decades and five children later, he's still my guy." (Referring to her husband during the RNC nomination speech)

"In what respect, Charlie?" (Response to Charlie Gibson's question "Do you agree with the Bush Doctrine?")

"We have that very narrow maritime border between the United States and the 49th state, Alaska, and Russia. They are our next-door neighbors. We need to have a good relationship with them. They're very, very important to us, and they are our next-door neighbor. ... You can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska." (To Charlie Gibson in the same Sept. 11 interview)

Sarah Palin
Photo: Michael Williams

"John McCain has that streak of independence in him that I think is very, very important in America today in our leadership. I have that within me also. That's why John McCain tapped me, to be a team of mavericks." (To Fox News' Sean Hannity in a Sept. 17 interview)

"Ultimately, what the bailout does is help those who are concerned about the health-care reform that is needed to help shore up our economy. Um, helping the ... Oh, it's gotta be all about job creation, too, shoring up our economy and putting it back on the right track. So health-care reform and reducing taxes and reining in spending has got to accompany tax reductions, tax relief, for Americans." (To CBS's Katie Couric in a Sept. 24 interview)

"I'll try to find ya some, and I'll bring 'em to ya." (Response to Katie Couric's request that she cite specific examples of John McCain's pushes for more regulation)

"Drill, baby, drill!" (Repeated often, beginning chants at rallies across America)

"I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I'm going to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record also." (During the VP debate Oct. 2)

"Did not order the clothes. Did not ask for the clothes. Would have been happy to have worn my own clothes from day one. That turned into an odd issue, an odd campaign issue, as things were wrapping up." (Post-election interview with CNN referring to the flap over $150,000 in clothing paid for by the RNC)

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