Political and product advertising share the same goal: to help consumers see the personal benefit they and their families gain from the decision.
But there are distinct differences in potential outcomes. Product advertising allows for multiple winners. Political advertising does not. Achieve the biggest market share or go home with nothing. From that incontrovertible truth, stark differences between political and product ads flow.
In politics, the creative process is devalued. Not that some political ad makers aren't capable of fashioning visually stunning or LOL-funny spots, but the need for them is limited. Gorgeous visuals are typically reserved for aspirational spots (of which we've seen few in 2012). Humor is risky; it can fall flat or be misinterpreted. Voters place a premium on authenticity, so opposition research and news are political ad makers' go-to tools.
In political advertising, the fine art is the buy. Brand advertisers often target their ads narrowly and deeply to reach core consumers; political ads are patches in a crazy quilt, stitching together diverse audiences into a coalition that will comprise a winning market share. Big brands need broad geographic reach; presidential ads are concentrated in swing states -- in 2012, fewer than one-third of all DMAs. And whereas people need toothpaste whether they stay loyal to a brand or not, in politics, the most sought-after "consumers" are those who may not vote at all. Increasing spots and point levels are needed to push them to the polls.
Political ads and ad dollars move as fast as casino chips. Many ads travel from edit suites to TV stations within hours. The Obama ad team is rotating 20 unique ads among just 60 markets. Buys are placed and changed so quickly that , unlike in corporate America, the risk of leaks is irrelevant. Some political advertisers even leak their buys to the press to communicate with like-minded advertisers they're legally prohibited from talking to -- such as super PACs.
In corporate advertising, it's rare to see an ad that directly attacks a rival; in 2012 presidential advertising, it's rare to see an ad that does not. Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group finds that 84% of all broadcast TV ads airing in the Obama-Romney bout have been negative. No other sector -- not even hyper-aggressive telecom or insurance -- comes close to that kind of record.
Politics is the only marketing vertical considered news in and of itself. It keeps network Sunday-show franchises, entire cable-news networks and dozens more media outlets alive. The free media devoted to political advertising is unmatched. Releasing a single ad often drives millions of dollars in publicity; a provocative ad can accomplish its mission without a single dollar behind it. Compare that with product marketing, where there's no such thing as a free lunch.
Small wonder that Madison Avenue looks upon political advertising as a leaner, meaner stepsibling. Less creative, harsher in tone, and lower dollar, but also infinitely faster and more agile -- necessities when a 49% market share can be considered a failure. Political ad makers are the ones you go to war with. Consumer marketers might benefit from adopting a little bit of that from-the-trenches approach.