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Political Ads Can’t Save Democrats
It Isn't 1984 Anymore And The Best Ad Won't Help Much
“That would make a great ad” is a comment you frequently see, usually in reference to a viral moment like a debate gaffe or zinger or just a really punchy story that can be easily told in thirty seconds or less.
The thought process from a lot of liberals is that one of the secrets to campaign success is great ads, and that donations to Democratic candidates should result in a storm of advertising that drowns their Republican opponents. If the public just saw all of those wonderful advertising messages, it is believed, they will be swayed to vote for Democrats and motivated to show up at the polls for them.
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I used to believe in this as well. I enjoy political ads and I even have my favorites that I watch from time to time from past campaigns like a weirdo.
But the centrality of campaign ads to a winning effort has become increasingly irrelevant over the last 25 years. We are long past seeing political advertising that is as potent as LBJ’s “Daisy” ad or Ronald Reagan’s “Bears” or even the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth smear ads against John Kerry back in 2004.
Like all other forms of advertising, political advertising — at least for federal elections and even gubernatorial ones — is not the end all, be all that it used to be. There’s just simply too many advertising messages that people are bombarded with every day for an effort that prioritizes campaign advertising to make up for other deficiencies.
My favorite recent story illustrating this was Michael Bloomberg’s failed presidential campaign in 2020.
Bloomberg hired some of the best Democratic ad makers and blanketed YouTube with his messages about how he would “fix” Washington. But what ended up happening is that a lot of children way below the voting age became experts on his advertising while Bloomberg got 2.4 million votes (compared to 19 million for Biden) and 59 delegates (Biden got 2,687).
Another data point in recent election history is the vast disparity between how much money Hillary Clinton spent on TV campaign ads in 2016 compared to Donald Trump. According to this analysis Clinton had spent $140 million by late October of that year while Trump only spent $40 million. Even if you point to the results where Clinton clearly defeated Trump in the popular vote, the 5 million vote margin should have been much higher if TV ads were such a powerful tool.
What Trump understood because of his decades as a ludicrous tabloid, reality, and trash TV figure is that getting his name in front of people as part of the news was a far more efficient and impactful action than ad spending. Of course, he was assisted by a compromised media who hung on his every nonsensical word, but the underlying truth is that communicating to the public this way is more useful than a wall of campaign ads that fades into the background noise of modern life.
The old way of thinking, where Democrats keep their powder dry for most of the year, only to unleash TV advertising in the fall, is dead.
Like other techniques that involve leaning back from day-to-day politics, it should be retired.
Instead, politics and campaigning have to become a daily fight that gets before the eyeballs of the public through the news and other information channels (social media especially). That means that consultants with slick advertising skills will still be needed but they should be deprioritized from the front lines they once served on.
Coverage has to be generated through the creation of spectacle of some sort. Earned media is more valuable than paid media, even though politicians will have less control over it. Mainstream journalism is broken, and the prospects for having it fixed to a more civic-minded posture is essentially a fevered dream at this point, so they should be fed bread and circuses.
Generate controversy. Say provocative things. Position liberal/progressive ideas as the boon they are for the vast majority of Americans and clearly call out the destructive endgame of right-wing policies as enacted by Republicans.
There are many tools available for use in the service of this end goal, and every elected official from the local politician to the President of the United States now has the tools at their disposal to make this happen. They just have to be willing to speak up to get the ball rolling, and when the press declines to cover a vital message, that is merely the gateway to making even more noise and friction about how views held by millions are being censored and shunned.
None of this means that campaign advertising is dead. A good, slick ad is still a way to get in front of an audience, but it is now just one part of an arsenal, and not the gamechanger it used to be. Something might make a great ad, but even before that it probably makes a great press release, on-camera statement, press conference, TikTok/Facebook/Instagram/Twitter video or — ideally — all of the above.
Most of the public is never going to be seeking out political news and information. Unless it directly affects their day-to-day, busy lives it can pass them right by. What has to be done is figuring out a way to get their eyeballs on the message, and they are more likely to see it if it isn’t being sold to them like mattresses and cars.
Make enough noise, repeatedly and in unison, and that message becomes harder and harder to ignore. So by the time they do happen across a campaign ad their minds will already have heard about the topic and then the ad may be effective in prodding them to support a position or even vote.
The noisemaking is the thing, not a great ad.
Follow me, Oliver Willis, on Twitter @owillis
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