Similar-looking commercials may accidentally be helping presidential candidates

If you haven’t yet noticed how much this year’s election commercials and online videos look, sound and feel like each other — regardless which campaign they come from — you’re either blind, deaf or just not paying attention.

Back in July, we theorized that this sameness resulted from process — reactive rather than proactive tactics, use of “found object” stock video rather than original footage dictated by time constraints, similar content driven by the issue of the day, no time (and maybe no desire or ability) to think beyond see-say execution, and so on.

“Political commercials,” we wrote, “don’t have to be visual clones of each other, differentiated only by audio track and supers.” But this year they are. And given this year’s  election dynamics, this may turn out to be A Good Thing for the candidates — quite unintendedly.

A different rulebook?

There are two reasons this may be so.

First, political advertising doesn’t work like product advertising. And second, this election isn’t working like most elections.

With product commercials, each brand has several competitors. In elections, each major candidate has only one.

Product commercials are aimed at least as much at getting satisfied customers to repurchase as getting non-customers to switch from other brands. In elections, only one of the candidates, at most, can be re-elected.

Because of these factors, each product’s advertising strives to establish its own look, feel, sound, tone and message, to differentiate from competitors. This is called “branding.”

Good, distinctive branding often helps product commercials get more viewer attention — especially from loyal customers. (The consumers who pay the most attention to car ads, for example, are people who just bought that make of car. And Coca-Cola drinkers will much more likely be receptive to a Coke commercial than a Pepsi commercial.)

So, often, does bad branding, where the first thing viewers see as a commercial fades up is the product logo.

But in this election, distinctive branding may be the last thing each campaign needs. That’s because the real target audience isn’t satisfied customers. It’s undecided and, in some cases, regretful ones.

Conventional wisdom says that at least 90% of the electorate has already made and locked down its choices. This leaves, at most, 10% of the voters — independents, undecideds — up for grabs, along with disenchanted voters from last time around.

Similarity equals stealth

Truly independent and undecided voters don’t want to be hit over the head with bias. Voters wrestling with buyer’s remorse don’t want to have their noses rubbed in it, by either side.

Distinctive commercials with good branding would do both. They’d raise these voters’ mental and emotional defenses and get tuned out.

When commercials are so similar you don’t know which candidate they’re from, it’s a different story. Viewers know they’re biased — but not until further into the spot do they know whose bias. So at least temporarily, those defenses aren’t activated, and at least part of the message can get through.

At least it’s not intentionally misleading, like those direct-mail pieces designed to look as if they came from the government.

But it’s still a lousy way to do advertising. Here’s hoping the 2016 election spares us from it.