Marketers of the Year No. 4: The Lincoln Project
Imagine a marketing group that, within the first six months of its launch, starts releasing ads so strong, so expertly produced, so compelling, that almost all of them go instantly viral across social media. That’s The Lincoln Project.
Imagine a marketing group being able to convince consumers to donate money—tens of millions of dollars—so it could keep producing a seemingly endless stream of viral ads. That’s also The Lincoln Project.
Imagine a marketing group whose founders are, basically, a band of renegades and turncoats whose creative output largely involves condemning old colleagues—while winning over former opponents. That, too, is The Lincoln Project.
And imagine a marketing group obsessed with the very idea of democracy—honoring it, preserving it, fighting for it—and whose ads arguably helped move the needle in the most contentious presidential election in modern American history. Again: The Lincoln Project.
TLP kicked off in December of 2019 with an op-ed in The New York Times titled “We Are Republicans, and We Want Trump Defeated.” The bio line for the four authors—in alphabetical order: George T. Conway III, Steve Schmidt, John Weaver and Rick Wilson—noted that they “have worked for and supported Republican campaigns,” including those of George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, John McCain, Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Kasich. Establishment conservatives, in other words, who were moved to launch something that was technically a political action committee, but which ended up functioning a lot like a powerhouse ad agency and turnkey media company—complete with 2.7 million Twitter followers, a quarter-billion YouTube video views, a robust podcast division and the streaming talk show LPTV.
From the get-go, TLP made it clear that that part of its mission was about transcending partisanship. That Times op-ed began, “Patriotism and the survival of our nation in the face of the crimes, corruption and corrosive nature of Donald Trump are a higher calling than mere politics.” And an awareness of the arc of American history was built into TLP’s very branding: “We look to Lincoln as our guide and inspiration. He understood the necessity of not just saving the Union, but also of knitting the nation back together spiritually as well as politically.”
A key moment for TLP came in May, when it released “Mourning in America” (below), a play on one of the most famous political ads of all time, 1984’s “Morning in America” from Ronald Reagan’s campaign (see “The Ad That Helped Reagan Sell Good Times to an Uncertain Nation,” via The New York Times). In contrast to “Morning,” TLP’s “Mourning” is relentlessly bleak, serving up scenes of empty streets in economically devastated communities and shots of people wearing masks amidst the pandemic. Over a plaintive classical soundtrack, an announcer slams the president: “There’s mourning in America, and under the leadership of Donald Trump, our country is weaker and sicker and poorer.”
“Mourning” and other anti-Trump TLP ads not only became cultural phenomena but—rather helpfully—White House talking points (see “Trump promotes harsh new anti-Trump ad with late-night Twitter campaign”) and prompts for PAC donations. “When we set out to do this,” TLP cofounder Rick Wilson tells Ad Age, “we thought we were going to raise 4 or 5 million” dollars leading up to Election Day. They ended up raising $80 million.
“A lot of political parties, a lot of brands in the world,” Wilson says, “took all the emotion out of their argument. So, you’ll often see Democratic Party television ads that are like, ‘Congressman So-and-So will restore House Bill 1727, which will reprioritize the budget for senior healthcare, blah blah blah. He’s the subcommittee chairman of this or that.’ No one buys that shit. No one!”
The whole point of TLP’s approach, he adds, is that “We’re not unemotional about this stuff. We’re passionate about this stuff.” That passion has even extended to TLP’s occasional non-attack ad, such as “Biden’s Moment” (below), a feel-good, hagiographical spot released in late October.
Yes, a group of old-school Republicans—veteran political operatives who spent decades crafting messages designed to undermine and defeat Democrats—actually offered full-throated support for Joe Biden. Perhaps leopards can change their spots after all? (Satirical website The Onion, for one, is not so sure: “Lincoln Project Immediately Releases Series Of Ads Calling For Biden Impeachment.”)
It’s instructive to note that TLP has, post-Election Day, continued to condemn the GOP for its ongoing support of Trump even as he launched baseless attacks on the election itself:
And TLP has also been waging war on pro-Trump Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, and supporting their Democrat challengers, in the upcoming runoff election for Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats.
For the record, post-Trump, The Lincoln Project isn’t ready to hang up a “Mission Accomplished” banner and simply pivot to becoming a proper media company (as some Obama-era operatives did, particularly in the podcasting realm). Wilson notes that while the TLP team is open to working with brands on non-political marketing projects, at its core The Lincoln Project will continue to exist as a political action committee.
The plan from the start, he says, was not only to defeat Donald Trump and “pursue his enablers in this election and beyond” but to “do everything we possibly could to eliminate Trumpism. That’s a longer mission than one election cycle.”