Iowa Upends Political-Ad Wisdom

Bigger Ain't Necessarily Better, Men Can Sell to Women and Gen Y Does Know How to Caucus

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WASHINGTON ( -- Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton learned a basic truth of marketing the hard way: All the media weight in the world isn't going to help if people don't like the message or the product.
Barack Obama's win in Iowa provided a lesson in putting too much faith in broad demographic categories.
Barack Obama's win in Iowa provided a lesson in putting too much faith in broad demographic categories.

With the New Hampshire primary one day away and Super Duper Tuesday looming in February, strategists and pundits are trying to parse the results of the Iowa caucuses, in which Republican Mike Huckabee and Democrat Barack Obama emerged victorious. Many advertisers will recognize the lessons they're learning.

Not only did Iowa deliver a blow to the presumptive leaders in each party, it also roughed up a few bits of conventional wisdom. Among the marketing and political clich├ęs that took a beating: Today's youth are tough to reach, disengaged and won't vote; women respond best to women; and negative advertising usually works. Oh, yeah, and the guy with the biggest spend wins.

Actually, the guy who spent the most on broadcast advertising -- Barack Obama, with $10 million -- did win (more on that later), but the biggest surprise of the night for many was the fact that Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who littered the airwaves with $7.9 million worth of spots, lost to Mike Huckabee, who spent only $1.5 million.

Ronald Reagan type
John Zogby, president-CEO of polling firm Zogby International, said the results signal that it's not only the amount of advertising that determines victory but also the message. He suggested that Mr. Huckabee emerged as a likable Ronald Reagan type and that his quick rise left little time for opponents to point out any questions about his record.

"Some people caught the mood of the nation. Some people didn't," said Fred N. Davis III, a GOP consultant and head of Strategic Perception, Los Angeles.

Or as Mr. Huckabee put it to Jay Leno the night before the caucuses: "People are looking for a presidential candidate who reminds them more of the guy they work with rather than the guy that laid them off." (Mr. Huckabee also noted in interviews that his was a victory for "message over money.")

But that's not to say "the message" should be confused with policy positions. In essence, Mr. Huckabee was running against the establishment. Mr. Davis argues that it wasn't so much Mr. Huckabee's stances voters liked; it was that they disliked Mr. Romney presenting himself as an establishment candidate. Mr. Huckabee's successful use of videos featuring Chuck Norris also helped in that regard.

More is less
Roy Sekoff, founding editor of the Huffington Post, said in the short term, Iowa also generated a strong evangelical turnout for Mr. Huckabee, but Mr. Romney's advertising had problems. "It seemed as though, given the extensive amount of advertising, the more they saw, the less they liked," he said.

And Mr. Zogby pointed out that Iowan Republicans may have long ago grown tired of Mr. Romney's ubiquitous presence. "You can advertise too much," he said. "People get tired of seeing the same old face, and he went negative. Iowans didn't like it."

While Mr. Huckabee pulled his own fair share of jabs and sucker punches, many of them were thrown off the air or quickly forgotten by the media, whereas Mr. Romney's ads were in heavy rotation.

Again, that's not to say that advertising doesn't work. Good advertising -- or at least inoffensive advertising -- should help. Mr. Obama's $10 million broadcast buy obviously contributed to his victory. But again, it was the anti-establishment message -- one similar to Mr. Huckabee's -- that Mr. Obama provided that seems to have resonated.

Message rejected
Said Mr. Sekoff: "At the end of the day, caucus goers looked closely and responded to messages of hope. [Hillary] Clinton's message of experience got through and got rejected. Voters don't want to go back."
Mike Huckabee, who spent only $1.5 million in Iowa, beat out Mitt Romney, who spent $7.9 million.
Mike Huckabee, who spent only $1.5 million in Iowa, beat out Mitt Romney, who spent $7.9 million.

Mr. Obama also provided a lesson in putting too much faith in broad demographic categories. Mr. Zogby said that on the Democratic side, the results could offer some lessons on the dangers of depending too much on assumptions about demographic breakdowns. While more women came to the Democratic caucuses, an outcome that was expected to benefit Ms. Clinton, he said it turned out that many of the newcomers were younger women who sided with Mr. Obama and John Edwards.

"In this instance, they were younger first, before they were women," he said, suggesting the younger women were less worried about seeing a woman president immediately.

Mr. Sekoff pointed out that the youth vote that helped fuel a dramatic increase in Democratic caucus goers -- 220,000 vs. 120,000 last time -- could be a breakthrough if it holds, but it's not clear if it will. "Obama is a movement kind of candidate, a movement away from the normal business and bickering, but the interesting question is whether [the movement] will have legs or Iowa is an anomaly."

Ads still count
Evan Tracey, chief operating officer for TNS Media Intelligence's Campaign Media Analysis Group, said the success Mr. Obama had with being the biggest spender in the state vs. Mr. Romney's showing also argued that the message, not the amount of advertising, was at fault.

"From an advertising perspective, there is no definitive evidence that advertising doesn't work," he said.

Whatever the Iowa results, the heavy spending there and a move by Rudy Giuliani's campaign quickly ended any doubts about the heavy role ads will play going forward.

The Giuliani campaign, which is placing its bets on Florida and the Feb. 5 contest, launched the first national network-TV ad buy for the presidential race in at least 12 years and maybe the first network-TV buy ever in a presidential-primary race.
Source: TNS Media Intelligence's Campaign Media Analysis Group
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