The consumer research is in, and it shows that the Clinton and Trump campaigns’ television advertising is achieving the same results – none. The reasons are very different though, and each has an important lesson for regular (i.e., non-political) advertisers.
The Trump campaign’s television advertising is so ineffective for a very simple reason: They’ve run next to none of it. From September 16 through Election Day, according toAdvertising Age‘s analysis of Kantar Media spending figures, the official Trump campaign will be investing all of $548,656 in television air time. Before that, they spent$4.3 million, for a grand total of $4.85 million. As a result, their commercials are, to all intents and purposes, invisible. This is because viewers need to be exposed to a commercial several times before they even even realizing that it’s there. The first time a new commercial runs, viewer reaction is, “Did I just see something new?” Second time, it’s, “Oh, that’s what I saw.” It’s only after the third exposure that viewers may start seeing and hearing the content – and that’s if the advertiser’s lucky.
The only time in recorded history that a commercial achieved notice from one airing on television was the Apple Macintosh introduction in the 1984 Super Bowl telecast. Ever since then, small brands have been trying to duplicate that feat, investing their whole year’s ad budget into one Super Bowl spot (which invariably doesn’t work, leaving the advertisers devastated, both emotionally and financially).
If you’re going to buy television at all, you need to make sure you can afford to buy enough of it. There’s an industry index called Gross Rating Points. A 100-GRP buy means that the channel’s audience will be exposed to your message an average of once during the life of the buy. Averages being what they are, that means that some will be exposed to it once, some twice, and some not at all. If you’re running television advertising for your business, you want to be sure to buy at least 200 GRPs per week; political campaigns (except for Trump’s) routinely buy five to ten times that weight, if not more.
The reason the Clinton campaign’s advertising is ineffective is not that they’re buying too little air time. From September 16 through Election Day, they’ve booked over $75 million worth of advertising time ($75,206,918 to be specific), following on the heels of another $68.2 million in August. That total of $143,406,918 is just under 30 times the Trump campaign’s budget. And it follows on the heels of another $100 million or so they spent on tv ads during August and early September. But even before Clinton’s September 11 overheating, er, pneumonia attack, both consumer ad testing and overall political polling showed the advertising wasn’t moving the needle – at least in the right direction. That’s not because of the budget, but because of the commercials themselves.
For one thing, they didn’t look the least bit different from all those other political commercials infesting the airwaves in a presidential election year (which also includes House and Senate races). There’s a cookie-cutter approach to producing election spots, and it’s pretty dictated by time and cost pressures: You grab a bunch of talking-head clips, cut and paste them together with newspaper headlines, super the sound bites on screen for all those voters who have their audio off, throw some stock music in the background (its mood depending on whether for a positive or attack ad), and you’re done. You end up with a commercial that more or less looks like every other political commercial. And that’s a problem because of the way people see advertising in general.
As 2015 research conducted by New Zealand’s Victoria University discovered, what people see has a yuuge effect on what people believe. It also telegraphs the content of the message in a way that no spoken words can. So when viewers see a commercial whose video is mostly head shots of Trump, many unconsciously believe it to be a Trump commercial.
Or they tend to be unmoved by what they see. Thanks to accommodating print and broadcast news media, most of the sound bites the Clinton campaign intended to be shocking and, shall we say, deplorable come across as, at worst, old news, baked into what voters already know about Clinton’s opponent.
Even worse, because of a misapprehension on the part of Clinton’s ad team, they rob her commercials of the most important element of advertising effectiveness – emotion. In his 2012 book, The Righteous Mind: Why People are Divided by Politics and Religion, University of Virginia psychology professor Jonathan Haidt reported on the findings of a massive survey in which researchers asked people moral questions, then timed their responses while scanning their brains. What the answers and brain patterns indicated was that people reach conclusions quickly and intuitively and only later think about reasons to justify the conclusions they’ve already jumped to. Or, as any good copywriter could have told you anytime over the past half-century, people make purchase decisions with their guts and their hearts, then justify them with their heads.
So what does this have to do with a misapprehension on the part of the Clinton ad team? This: Because they see Trump as Evil Incarnate, they create commercials as if everyone else does. Apparently, to their way of thinking, just showing Trump on screen with all those horrifying things he said coming out of the speakers should automatically produce an emotional reaction of fear and loathing. So far, as current polls show, it hasn’t.
Two presidential campaigns in living memory ignored the cut-and-paste formula and instead used original video that wasn’t all talking heads, that was unexpected (and therefore new) in political advertising, stirred strong emotional reactions in viewers – on, and by the way, devastated their candidates’ opponents.
The first of these presidential campaigns was Lyndon Johnson’s in 1964, which wanted to portray Republican Barry Goldwater as someone whose finger Americans couldn’t trust on the nuclear trigger (just as Clinton portrays Trump today). But instead of using a clip of Goldwater saying how he’d like to shoot a nuke into the Kremlin men’s room, their 60-second commercial opened on a little girl counting petals she was pulling from a daisy. As she reached the count of ten, her voice was replaced by a man’s counting down from ten as the video moved in to a tight closeup of her eye, then cut to a hydrogren-bomb blast. As the mushroom cloud formed, a voice-over from Lyndon Johnson was saying, “These are the stakes to ake a world in which all of God’s children can live…We must either love each other or we must die.” A concluding voice-over urged voters to “Vote for President Johnson on November third. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.” Like the Apple “1984” commercial twenty years later, it aired only once, and people still remember it.
The second was for then-Vice President George H. W. Bush’s campaign against former Massachusetts Governor George Dukakis, who was running on a platform of experience and competence. One 30-second commercial, called The Harbor, shows all kinds ofdisgusting garbage floating in Boston Harbor while the voice-over notes that as a candidate Dukakis called it “an open sewer” but as governor did nothing about it.”And,” it concludes, “Michael Dukakis promises to do for America what he’s done for Massachusetts.” The other :30, titled The Dukakis Furlough Program, opens on bleak prison footage. As the camera moves in to a closeup of a big revolving turnstile through which men in prison uniforms are going in and out, the voice-over notes that Dukakis’s “revolving door prison policy gave weekend furloughs to first-degree murderers not eligible for parole. While out, many committed other crimes like kidnapping and rape. And many are still at large.” It concludes the same way as the Harbor sport: “Now Michael Dukakis says he wants to do for America what he’s done for Massachusetts.”
These commercials were everything the Clinton anti-Trump commercials aren’t. They’re visual, not talking-head. They never show the opponent on screen; in fact, the Johnson commercial never even mentions Goldwater by name. They’re emotional.They arouse, rather than assuming the automatic existence of, the emotion of fear. They give new facts, not rehashed news stories, to viewers to help them justify an emotional decision to vote against Goldwater or Dukakis. And they were effective. Bush was elected by a 7.8% margin, Johnson by 22.6%.
Ironically, the fact that Trump’s advertising is nonexistent and Clinton’s is mediocre and ineffective may not be all that bad for either of them. Both, after all, continue to have high negative ratings. And as William Bernbach, who more than anyone revolutionized the advertising industry in the late 1960s, once said, “Nothing destroys a bad product faster than great advertising.”