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January 31, 2017
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2016 Inaugurates New Rules for Election Advertising

$10 Billion Dollars is a LOT of money.

$10 Billion Dollars is a LOT of money.

Enough to buy ALL the baseball teams in the National League East.  Maybe, a Nimitz-class Aircraft Carrier (plus a couple of planes).

According to a new report from Borrell Associates, the final tally of political spending in 2016 came in at $9.8 billion dollars. Was it a good party, America?    Shall we do it again in four years? Did we spend the money the most effective way possible? Did it work? More importantly, what can the advertising community learn from this campaign?

While Broadcast TV was still the dominant medium, their political revenue fell nearly 20% compared to 2012. Radio spending also fell by 23% (to $621 million) while digital advertising reached $1.4 billion. Up from just $159 million in 2012.

Between the two Presidential candidates, the battle for traditional marketing space was completely one-sided. According to the Wesleyan Media Project, Pro-Clinton messages out muscled Pro-Trump messages by three to one and this dominance held steady throughout the campaign. Everyone thought that the Donald Trump ad barrage would hit closer to the election, but even in the final two weeks of the campaign, Clinton still out-messaged Trump two to one.

Therefore, the losing candidate had triple the ad budget, high profile endorsements, friendly media coverage and quality creative, but of course, we know the outcome.  So did advertising fail?  Was Ad Age editor, Ken Wheaton correct when he went so far as to say, “Traditional advertising and millions in spending were useless?”

Alternatively, has Donald Trump shown us the benefit of a superior media mix?

Trump’s traditional ad budget wasn’t exactly small.   But in combination with his dominance of social media, he may have magnified his effectiveness beyond all expectations.

Trump’s strategy went beyond his constant tweets.   Audiences for his live speeches on Facebook overshadowed the in-person crowds. His tweets reached a larger audience than a: 30-second spot.  In addition, he was able to speak past the media directly to the voters.    A practice he seems willing to continue as President.

“The fact that I have such power in terms of numbers with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.,” Trump said on 60 Minutes, “I think it helped me win all of these races where they’re spending much more money than I spent.   I think that social media has more power than the money they spent.”

What can we learn as marketers?  The Clinton campaign relied heavily on outbound marketing. Trump focused more on inbound marketing, pulling people toward his product instead of targeting the buyers. Trump pushed his hashtag and tagline and never stopped, literally wearing his slogan on his head.   Although Trump often hurt himself as often as helped himself on Twitter, he never failed to make news and continually push the news cycle.

The 2016 presidential campaign showed for the first time ever that a massive spending and fundraising advantage does not automatically determine the election.  Advertising a candidate, like any other product is a much more complex formula that has to strike the right balance to succeed.

Lastly, if you think this was the nastiest campaign ever, see the chart below. The overall tone of ads aired, were more positive than those from 2012 were.

Table: Tone of Presidential General Election Advertising

  Negative % Contrast % Positive %
Figures are from June 8 to October 30 of each year.
Numbers include broadcast television, national network and national cable.
CITE SOURCE OF DATA AS: Kantar Media/CMAG with
analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project.
2000 21.04 35.09 43.87
2004 45.77 26.88 27.35
2008 50.62 21.59 27.79
2012 63.76 24 12.24
2016 51.51 25.04 23.45