Marketing ventriloquism: Lessons marketers can learn from political advertising
Much ado is made about how much political candidates spend on advertising. Why? I suspect there are many reasons we analyze this ad spend, but from my perspective, the important lesson is that correlation is not always causation.
Steven Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics and economics professor at the University of Chicago, analyzed the effect of campaign spending by studying U.S. House elections between 1972 and 1990. According to Levitt's findings, "Campaign spending has an extremely small impact on election outcomes, regardless of who does the spending." Although some argue that money does, indeed, impact politics, I believe Mike Bloomberg’s recent advertising spending and campaign illustrated Levitt's point to all of us.
One of the reasons I suspect that advertising dollars don’t tell the whole story is that the influence of advertising in national politics is swamped by the influence of earned media, also called press coverage. This is one of the great things about a free press and why it is so integral to a healthy democracy: It is a strong anecdote to propaganda.
Secondly, determining the candidate for whom you are going to vote is the ultimate “considered purchase.” As we know, earned media matters most for considered purchases because people actively seek information and strongly evaluate the sources of the information they receive.
That is why I believe communicating through voices other than their own — known as marketing ventriloquism — is so important for marketers to understand. The power of the press and third-party perspective goes beyond selling a product or an idea and is beginning to be more academically understood to drive whole economies.
Robert Shiller, a Nobel Prize winner for economics, made this point when asked by Fortune for his big idea about what would shape the 2020s. According to Shiller, “The power of narratives in driving economic events will be studied more. Economics will become less mechanical—more attention to storytelling and changing popular ideas. And it will give impetus toward trying to manipulate and manage narratives. This is something politicians do instinctively."
Beyond politics, perhaps those of us marketing high-consideration items can learn from this and spend more time shaping the narrative about our categories and products, rather than focusing so much on advertising.
Below are three ways marketers can shape their brand's narrative, beyond traditional advertising, to master marketing ventriloquism:
Endorsements are marketing ventriloquism 101. Get people who are meaningful and credible to your audience to make your case for you. Sure, it’s great if the leading expert in your field will specifically endorse your company, but they can also be very valuable by endorsing the problem that your company solves or the type of solution your company offers. For example, if your business sells reusable food storage containers, there are a few ways someone could endorse your brand:
• A good endorsement would be: "America needs better food storage options."
• A better endorsement would be: "America needs better food storage options that are also good for the environment."
• The best endorsement would be: "America needs food storage options like those from company X that are reusable, keep your food fresh and help limit the use of single-use plastic."
Hijack a captivating news story or social meme by connecting to it in an authentic way. When people are in an information-seeking mode about a particular topic, I've found they are more likely to come across your narrative and be open to it. To practice this effectively, connect to a topic that is not oversaturated to the point that your voice will be drowned out. Then, ensure the topic is relevant enough to what you do that you can add meaningful insight to the dialogue.
For example, if there is a major identity theft crisis, a cybersecurity firm might view that as an opportunity to educate its consumers on the nature of the breach and what companies and individuals can do to protect themselves. If you're navigating a very saturated topic, it will be hard to break through all the noise unless you are delivering a related story of national interest or very high importance to a highly focused audience.
Variations of the phrase, “Never waste a good crisis,” have been attributed to both Winston Churchill and Rahm Emanuel. During crises, people are not only frantically seeking information, but they are also unusually open to forming new opinions and are looking for leadership and authority on a subject, which is a rare marketing trifecta.
When communicating during a crisis, be careful not to waste people’s time, even though crises open the aperture for the types of information people are willing to consider. You don’t want customers or prospects to form a negative opinion about you or your service.
It can be extremely tempting to adopt someone else’s crisis as your crisis, but doing so can come across as inauthentic or distasteful in a commercial context. Trying too hard to manufacture news about your company’s connection to a crisis could come across as hollow or off-pitch, especially if real lives and livelihoods are at stake.
When communicating during a crisis, ensure that it is closely related to your core value proposition so that your company can offer an informed opinion or unique perspective. For example, it would be entirely appropriate for solar companies to offer commentary during a period of rolling brownouts.
In addition to PR, there are numerous ways to amp up the narratives important to your company, whether they’re around a product, value proposition, reputation, social issue or anything else. Remember, just like political candidates, you can say as much as you want about your company or your products, but, for considered purchases, it is what other people say about your company and products that is going to shift opinions, and, more importantly, behavior.