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US Presidential Election Marketing

How Democrat and Republican mudslinging ads are playing out ahead of the election

By Tree Elven

September 2, 2020 | 9 min read

As the US presidential elections hurtle towards a nation still reeling from Covid-19, Republicans and Democrats alike have been forced to run their conventions almost entirely digitally. That hasn’t stopped candidates for both parties spending hard on mudslinging, with incumbent Donald Trump shelling out $80m in the first half of 2020 and former vice-president Joe Biden coughing up $65m. Tree Elven, author and founder of Adds at, explores how the attacks are fairing.

Biden Corvette

'Slow Joe' revs up a Corvette

Money talks, but what’s it saying?

While Joseph Robinette ’Joe’ Biden Jr officially accepted his nomination as presidential candidate in a powerfully delivered speech at the Democratic National Convention (DNC), the attention grabber-in-chief hijacked millions of eyeballs during the event by taking out a series of related rotating ads on YouTube’s homepage.

US policing and unrest on city streets are hot-button topics in this year’s elections. This ad depicts what the New York Times called “moments of violence from largely peaceful protests earlier this year as evidence of a violent ‘radical leftist mob’.” Launched on the first day of the DNC, it got almost 13m YouTube views.

“Whenever I go to YouTube, I see campaign ads with the two of them bashing each other,” says a 22-year-old comedy writer who’s currently job hunting in Los Angeles after Covid-19 restrictions scuppered her internship in the entertainment industry there. “My roommates and I are just trying to stay sane here and the negative vibe of the election campaigns is not helping – it’s really negative. I don’t want to get cynical, but it’s very hard not to.”

“We’re not taking campaign ads as fact,” she continues. “We know the difference between right and wrong and they won’t sway the way we vote. Trump’s a show pony – his ads are like a joke, but he’s being serious.”

Biden guns a Corvette as Trump points to ‘Slow Joe’

The Trump camp also put out this ’Past v Present’ spot.

Through editing footage of public appearances by Mr Biden in 2015 to contrast with more recent ones, it shows what appears to be a deterioration in the 77-year-old Democrat’s mental faculties and sharpness, posing the question:

The campaign had received close on 21m views on YouTube at time of writing.

After it was announced that Kamala Harris, junior United States senator from California, would run as Biden’s vice-presidential nominee, Trump endorsed this ad tagged as: ”Phony Kamala and Slow Joe are perfect together!”

Biden had already gone on the offensive defense earlier in August, gunning a Corvette and stressing how ”it makes you feel in complete control”. He also said he looks forward to driving the 200mph electric model, which he suggested could be part of revamping the US auto industry.

The ‘slow Joe’ label may look like a risky bet to those who know that Joe and Corvettes have history: check out this 5 minute footage, ‘Joe Biden Does a Burnout in His Corvette Stingray – Jay Leno’s Garage’ from 2016. Biden was still vice-president at the time (it was during President Barack Obama’s second term), so TV personality Leno had to get special dispensation from the Secret Service because those in the nation’s highest offices are not allowed to get behind the wheel during their service.

“Brimming with confidence”

Mr Trump is himself 74 years old, unusually putting both candidates in the category of those commonly regarded as needing to ‘shield‘ during Covid-19, which hit the United States of America hard.

The Biden camp has certainly taken a poke at the present administration’s handling of Covid-19, for example with this ‘Didn’t Matter’ ad. However, as the Black Lives Matter movement gathered momentum, Biden sparked outrage with a comment in an interview by saying to host Charlamagne Tha God: ”If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.” Mr Trump‘s camp was swift to capitalise with this campaign.

Trump has been consistently bullish about his own health, even challenging Biden to a drug test before their first TV debate in September because he mistrusted the improvement in his opponent’s debating performance earlier in the campaign.

“We’re calling for a drug test,” said Trump. “Somebody said to me, ‘he must be on drugs’. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I’m asking for a drug test. Both candidates. Me too. I take an aspirin a day.“

At the height of the fray, a disaffected faction of the Republican Party put out this political ad on Fox News. In it, former members of the US armed forces explain why they will be voting for rival Democrat candidate Joe Biden. Fox News belongs to Australian-born, nationalized American media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp conglomerate.

With the advantage of going second in the convention stakes, Team Trump put on a polished performance. The candidate accepted his nomination with “a heart full of gratitude, and boundless optimism“.

He made his speech at the White House in person before some 1,500 supporters and officials, less than a week after holding a funeral service there for his younger brother Robert.

He is, he said, “brimming with confidence” about the next four years.

Cheap laughs

That trademark confidence is part of the Trump appeal, driving his knack of knocking out startling soundbites that have made him a popular butt for energetic criticism and derision.

The former vice-president’s camp jumped on to the cheap laughs bandwagon early on: at the end of 2019, it used the tagline ’Laughed At’ for a spot showing world leaders – including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson – mocking Donald Trump.

Efforts this year have focused less on easy target jobs and more on emotive ads, like this one, ambiguously called ’Swing’, which highlights Trump’s ”failed leadership” and cuts to social spending.

Americans go to the polls on November 3, 2020.

If you’ve found this interesting, keep an eye on – updated daily – and/or join Adds Club for more contextualization of today’s ads.

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