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The Race for the Oval Office: Advertising and social strategies in political campaigning

By Daniel Powel, commercial director

March 3, 2016 | 7 min read

With the dust now settled on ‘Super Tuesday’, a key stage in determining which political candidates will contest the US Presidential elections, Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton have emerged as the front-runners for their respective parties.

Daniel Powel is commercial director at NMP.

Along with traditional formats, such as print, door-to-door promotion, and television advertising, American election campaigns have branched out to embrace social media and online paid advertising as a means of reaching more voters, and capturing untapped demographics. In the 2016 race for the Oval Office, social media advertising has taken centre stage.

American politicians have always been quick to adapt to the newest technology for promotion; with the advent of television, presidents like Eisenhower, Nixon and Kennedy eagerly took to the format to reach their constituents. The first ads were simple question-and-answers style, or formal addresses. The game changed when Lyndon B. Johnson released his controversial “Daisy Girl Ad” on September 7, 1964. The ad showed a little girl plucking daisies and then an ominous voice counting down to a nuclear blast. The ad ends with the voice over warning Americans, “because the stakes are too high for you to stay home”. The age of fear mongering and attack ads had begun.

In North America, the US, and Canada use TV airtime to promote political party messages and engage in attack style campaigning. There is little regulation governing American political parties and paid advertising, or “verifiability". If you have the money, you can promote as much as you want. Canada has marginally better controls in place, ensuring that political parties all get equal airtime, and limits the time of day when these ads can be broadcast, but still permits mud-slinging TV ads to push the message across.

This isn’t the case in the Europe which has a strict TV advertising ban in place. In the UK, politicians have not been keen to adopt American, no-holds-barred, style advertising. Politicians have been afraid to engage in attack ad debacles, claiming they confuse voters by bombarding them with conflicting messages, but the tide recently turned.

UK political candidates have been able to evade the airtime restrictions by using social media platforms. Political parties have moved American style ad tactics to YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Here they can get at their opponents without breaking the law. This also allowed them to pay to target specific demographics: gender, age and location to capture new votes. However, this is paltry when compared the amounts spent by their American counterparts who are not forced to slink off to social media to mud-sling, and can dump millions into TV broadcasts.

In the US, Republican Presidential candidate, Donald Trump, boasted about his ad spend. The business mogul told reporters this past December, “I’ll be spending a minimum of $2M USD a week and perhaps substantially more than that. If somebody attacks me, I will attack them very much and very hard in terms of ads.” At the end of 2015, Trump had already spent approximately $300,000 USD on radio advertising.

On the Democrat side, Bernie Sanders has outspent Hillary Clinton in advertising but it has not done much to help his campaign. According to Time, in December, Sanders aired 7,650 ads - approximately one ad every six minutes. Clinton ran 5,650 TV ads, or the equivalent of one ad every eight minutes.

While the UK seems to be picking up on attack style advertising via social media, it appears that the American public’s appetite for it has diminished. The Centre for Public Integrity, broke down the ads-race during the Iowa caucus and noted that although Jeb Bush’s Super PAC (Political Action Committee), Right to Rise USA ran 10,000 ads, he only came away with 5,000 votes. Ads that were positive, from Trump, Sanders, Rubio and Clinton, all fared better than the usual attack ads that tend to dominate the airwaves.

Social Media by the Numbers: winners and losers

A snapshot of the social media accounts of two of the Democrat and three Republican front-runners shows that most of the presidential hopefuls know how to use social media to their advantage. Trump, ever the showman, remains the king of the social media political arena:

Donald Trump

Facebook: 5.65 million

Twitter: 6.09 million

Instagram: 958,000

YouTube: NO

Hillary Clinton

Facebook: 2.41 million

Twitter: 5.34 million

Instagram: 786,000

YouTube: 37,179

Bernie Sanders

Facebook: 2.73 million

Twitter: 1.37 million

Instagram: 735,000

Ted Cruz

Facebook: 1.88 million

Twitter: 800,000

Instagram: 32,400

YouTube: 27,690

Jeb Bush (now withdrawn from race)

Facebook: 325,084

Twitter: 453,000

Instagram: 518,000

YouTube: 4,687

Trump, a veteran of social media, got into the TV advertising game late, and chose instead to focus his time and efforts on reaching potential voters through Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. His social media following is the most impressive of the candidates listed here, even though his social media campaign has been full of gaffes. Trump spends his time attacking opponents, and making outrageous claims that would sink the career of any other politician, yet these blunders seem to buoy him.

Interestingly enough, for one of the wealthiest candidates, his spending has also been the shrewdest. In an article that recently appeared in Politico, Trump has dominated Facebook going into the New Hampshire primary. He has gathered 283,000 interactions on his Facebook page from 69,000 New Hampshire residents. His posts continue to retain the highest number of engagements, beating out Clinton and Sanders, and fellow Republican rivals.

Interestingly, Jeb Bush, who has now withdrawn from the race, seemed unable to grasp how to use social media in a compelling and relatable way. His wooden delivery and inability to connect to the American public via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram left him limping behind other candidates. Add to that, a recent Twitter debacle where internet trolls hijacked his hashtag #jebcanfixit, and turned it on its head, he had been lagging in paid advertising and social media.

In terms of paid search advertising, digital media is still playing catch up in the US compared to paid political TV ads. In an article from Wired, forecasts indicated that overall ad spend would be $11.4 billion USD during the 2016 election, with $1 billion of that dedicated to digital marketing efforts. That’s a 20 per cent increase from 2012’s political campaigning. Adgooroo took a look at US candidate’s paid search advertising in November 2015, and noted that Hillary Clinton appeared to be the biggest paid search spender at $66,000 USD for desktop text. None of the other candidates came close to that, and most haven’t been terribly proactive in terms of using paid search. This looks like its set to change but social media and TV ads still remain the dominant force behind the US elections machine.

Daniel Powel is commercial director at NMP.


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