Yes, Politicians Can Teach Marketers a Thing or Two

An Ad Age Editorial

Published on .

We would never urge major marketers to mimic political advertising -- the lowest-common-denominator messages, the clutter of clich├ęs, the empty and meaningless promises, the sometimes-dubious quality of spots slapped together in a hurry. That's to say nothing of the vitriol contained in direct-mail pieces and the dirty tricks pulled in last-minute push polls and robo calls.

That said, there are things companies can learn from political marketing. As of this writing, we don't know who has emerged victorious in the Iowa caucuses, but a look at the polls going into Thursday shows front-runners on both sides who used different marketing approaches to claw their way to the top. Mitt Romney, for example, is perhaps the best funded of the candidates and used his money to blanket the state in old-fashioned paid media. That served him well -- until Mike Huckabee came along. A dark-horse candidate with a fraction of the money, Mr. Huckabee saw a neglected niche in the Republican-primary market -- evangelical Christians looking for a populist candidate -- and exploited it by using word-of-mouth, media hype and, yes, some cynical anti-Mormon posturing.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, behaved like the leading candidate from the start. She played to her strengths and tried to shore up her weaknesses. Confidence can get you far, and it served her well -- up to a point. And that point was when Barack Obama started catching fire. Obama found a compelling message and stuck to it: Hillary Clinton is not inevitable, and you do have a choice. The fact that he was the only "new product" on the block didn't hurt either.

The most obvious lesson here is to spend big if you can afford it and spend smarter if you're being outspent. Huckabee, after all, spent only $1.5 million on TV compared with Romney's $7 million-plus. Secondly, even if you have a comfortable lead, you can't ignore challenges. Thirdly -- and this is something all politicians know -- the 30-second spot, while key to a successful campaign, is only a small part of an equation involving direct mail, radio, word-of-mouth, public relations, web and face-to-face interactions (also known as customer service).

Finally, there's the matter of long-term strategy and taking risk. Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, after all, did the unthinkable and practically skipped Iowa completely. But we'll have to wait a little longer to see what lessons to draw from that approach.
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