In the wake of any election, there’s always an overwhelming temptation to pin Election Day failures and shortcomings on political advertising.
This election cycle, the Democrats certainly weren’t underfunded overall, and across many key races—including the fight for the White House—they out-advertised Republicans, sometimes by wide margins. Just take a look at the charts here, courtesy of Ad Age Campaign Ad Scorecard—an ongoing project led by Ad Age Datacenter Director of Data Management Kevin Brown in partnership with Kantar.
And yet Dems failed to deliver a quick, decisive victory for Joe Biden, an Election Day landslide that was going to be the crest of a new blue wave that would supposedly also help them take control of the U.S. Senate and even make gains in the House.
So, sure, blame the marketing—blame the political ads—if you must. But while doing that, it might help to consider some of the larger context:
A reminder that this is not just about Coke vs. Pepsi
Unlike other countries around the world with vibrant multiparty politics, America seems firmly entrenched in two-party polarity. From a marketing perspective, that sets up a no-brainer media narrative: the idea that our elections are about making relatively straightforward A/B “product” choices between right and left, conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat.
Given our binary politics, we should just be able to apply the brute-force logic of traditional advertising to political campaigns, right? Define your brand attributes and values, articulate them, and then market them—as if political ads are just about pitching Coke vs. Pepsi or Adidas vs. Nike. May the best marketer win.
Maybe that used to be the case, but modern politicking has become a game of 3D chess with an unfathomable number of uncontrollable inputs that can neuter the impact of traditional political advertising (TV ads, basically). Big brands, circa 2020, generally play fair. Big political brands don’t—and they’ve got the internet and social media echo chambers at the ready for message amplification and distortion.
Immersed in that alternate reality, your political brand can quickly become unrecognizable—entirely divorced from your actual brand values—among certain groups of siloed media consumers. Coke doesn’t have to contend with Pepsi saying that it’s outright poison specifically formulated to kill your family. Adidas doesn’t go around saying that Nike wants to defund the police and invite marauding antifa mobs to burn down the suburbs.
Anti-Trumpers spent too much time and money preaching to the converted
Conservative PAC The Lincoln Project got a lot of attention this election cycle for its scathing anti-Trump ads. A lot of them went viral, racking up millions of views online, and when Ad Age wrote about them, they tended to quickly rise to the top of our website’s “most popular” ranking.
Did all those anti-Trump ads make Trump supporters abandon him at scale? Um, no. Did those ads strengthen the resolve of Democrats? Maybe in some cases—but in other cases, nope.
“The scary, doom-and-gloom, negative campaign spots that you typically see in an election year not only aren’t working with people that we want, they’re causing backlash among the people that we need,” Jess McIntosh, a veteran Democratic communications strategist, told Vanity Fair in late September in the wake of testing done by Fellow Americans, a Democratic group McIntosh works with. His argument was that “Trump is so saturated”—so omnipresent in the media—that anti-Trump ads could cause an almost allergic reaction among even committed anti-Trump voters. And those ads sure weren’t bringing undecideds into the fold.
Quite simply, at the presidential level, Dems devoted a lot of time to explaining why you should reject Trump, and not enough time explaining why you should embrace Biden.
Notably, The Lincoln Project, once it formally endorsed Joe Biden, did end up releasing some positive ads, including “Biden’s moment,” a feel-good bit of traditional campaign-ad hagiography.
But at its core, TLP was about anti-Trumpism. (That said, the conservative PAC arguably got what it paid for: Trump lost, but Republicans kept the Senate—assuming the GOP wins in January’s Georgia senatorial runoff—and expanded in the House, keeping a check on a Democratic president.)
A creatively ‘great’ ad is not the same as an effective ad
Leading up to Election Day, one of the most-viewed posts on AdAge.com was “Ballot bubbles silence Trump in humorous ads from Biden campaign.”
As Ad Age Creativity Editor Ann-Christine Diaz wrote, “A pair of new ads from the Biden campaign take a simple approach. Each features a sideway oval, which begins to move like a mouth as we hear words from President Trump, cut together from his various speeches.”
Trumpian pronouncements about the pandemic (“It’s going to disappear, one day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear”) and the environment (“All of this with the global warming, a lot of it is a hoax”) come from those bubbles. And then, “as his voice carries on, the nib of a pen lands in the bubble and starts to scribble, filling in the empty, moving ellipses. As the oval gets darker, Trump’s voice becomes increasingly muted, and once the final bit of white is filled in—complete silence. The camera then zooms out to reveal that the oval is on a ballot, and sitting next to it is Joe Biden’s name.”
Creatively clever? Yes. A deft bit of animation? Definitely. But also, frankly, problematic. The ads end with the tagline “Silence him”—which not only uncomfortably connects to leftist “cancel culture” that infuriates so many people on the right, but could be read as an attack-by-proxy on heartland voters who think of Trump as their voice.
In the end, the ballot bubbles spots were eerily reminiscent of another famous animated political ad from Democrats: “Donald Trump’s Immigration Inkblot,” released by Hillary Clinton’s campaign in September 2016.
In an Ad Age cover story that month headlined “Yes he can? Here’s how Trump could win,” we described the inkblot ad as “arty and weird and visually striking” and “also all wrong as a piece of persuasive political advertising.”
Trumpism is a religion—an unshakeable political faith for millions of Americans
In late October, in a column titled “Why Trump’s re-election still seems likely,” The Week’s Matthew Walther wrote of the “enthusiasm of his most fervent supporters, who love him as no president has been loved since Kennedy or perhaps even FDR.” That level of passion is hard for a lot of Democrats to grasp, because their own party has served up candidates such as Hillary Clinton (who even many Democrats strongly dislike) and Joe Biden (who, at least, is a likeable career politician and reliable Establishment figure, but is no Kennedy or FDR).
Trumpism—Trump fandom—at its most extreme is essentially a religion. Bidenism not only isn’t, it doesn’t even exist.
Religion is not, of course, about logic. Ergo, disciples aren’t looking for logic—or consistency or even incontrovertible facts—from their religious leaders. And true believers are sure as hell not susceptible to strident, self-proclaimed voices of truth that seek to poke holes in their faith.
There’s no getting around the fact that traditional advertising—persuasion marketing—fails miserably in this realm.
Fox News, the TV church of Trumpism, is an unstoppable political marketing force
In an October edition of Ad Age Campaign Scorecard, we reported that,
At the national TV level, no network has done better than Fox News when it comes to sopping up revenue from campaign ads. It’s no surprise the Trump campaign spent the most—$19.5 million—on placing ads on Fox News during the post-primary season; it is, of course, the TV-Viewer-in-Chief’s favorite channel. But Joe Biden also spent $6.1 million on Fox News during the post-primary season—within spitting distance of the $6.6 million his campaign spent on CNN. Throw in some miscellaneous PAC money, and Fox News pulled in a total of $26.3 million in presidential campaign ad dollars in the space of six months.
Let’s face it: $6.1 million is a lot of money for any campaign, but as a bulwark against the relentlessly anti-Biden, pro-Trump messaging delivered during Fox News primetime, it’s hopeless—and pointless.
And here we come full circle: First and foremost among the “uncontrollable inputs that can neuter the impact of the traditional political advertising” that we mentioned above? Fox News.
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell can (and do) talk themselves blue in the face every night carefully documenting assorted Trump outrages and misdeeds. But their approach is explanatory, plodding, professorial—and no match for the tent-revival tone of Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson over on Fox News.
The Democrats are busy delivering college lectures while the Republicans are holding worship services. In 2020, no amount of advertising can bridge that gap.