Elections and brands: gimmick or gold mine

Last week I wrote an article for BBDO KNOWS, a planning resource for the BBDO network, which I’m reproducing here with their permission.  BBDO KNOWS offers thinking, strategy, insights and inspiration on key categories, key themes and consumer segments. If you are interested in learning more about the way BBDO thinks please contact Melanie Norris, Global Planning Director, norrism@bbdoknows.com.

This week saw the US head to the polls to choose their next president and, as ever, there were plenty of brands trying to get a share of the attention.

Given the dwindling number of universal moments in culture, it’s unsurprising. For brands that would struggle to authentically associate themselves with Back-to-School or Halloween, the US Presidential election provides an alternative opportunity for a pre-Christmas communications push.

Here we look at three tactics that brands have used to get involved in the election, and who has done it well.


The most common tactic used by brands trying to associate themselves with an election is the ‘Newsjack’. A Newsjack refers to the practice of a brand anticipating a story that journalists will already be writing and creating a piece of content that will fit seamlessly into the story.

The run up to the election day will always see vast numbers of articles on the theme of “America is going election-crazy”, and this year has proved no different; these stories look at the unusual, extreme and hilarious things that people, neighbourhoods and (crucially, for PR purposes) brands are doing to celebrate the festival of democracy that is polling day.

It’s the one time of year where an Italian restaurant has a chance of generating earned media by emailing a picture editor a photo of a pizza that’s looks like a politician.

A Newsjack tends to generate the most short-lived type of fame, but given the relatively small amount of effort that is required on the part of brands to achieve it, it can often pass the cost-benefit analysis required to run the campaign.


Similar to a Newsjack, but requiring greater effort, is the election-related sales promotion. An example of this is 7-Eleven’s 7Election campaign where they offered customers ordering an XL Stay-Hot drink a choice between a red and blue cup to represent Trump or Clinton. These were then tallied and used to predict the result of the election.

The ambition behind a sales promotion like this is simply to increase the relevance of a product during this highly debated period, and (hopefully) give a spike to trade.

Election-related sales promotions however rarely have any effect on market share, as they tend to bring in people who were already in the market for a product and any spike begins to decay when the polls close and the time-limited promotion concludes.


The election-related activity that will arguably do most for a brand’s longer term market share is the sort which is targeted at the majority of the population (buyers and non-buyers alike), using mass media, which conveys a message in an emotional way.

This is very hard to do around an election. Emotions relating to politics are fairly volatile (to put it lightly) and any brand trying to take advantage of, or capitalise on these feelings, runs the risk of alienating or upsetting large numbers of people.

However, one brand who has managed to get it right this year is Audi, the automotive manufacturer, who premiered a spot – ‘Duel’ – during the first live televised debate. It showed a man and woman seemingly fighting to the death over something relating to the Presidential election.

It delivered a message about the desirability of the RS7 in a high-octane, awe-inspiring, adrenaline-pumping way that took emotions the audience would have already been feeling about the election and channeled them into the Audi brand. By hijacking the conversation already happening around the debate, Audi was able to generate earned media without alienating either side.


Whether you want a quick blast of publicity, a spike in sales or an increase in long-term brand value, there are ways of achieving it around election time. And, given that major elections are as certain to capture the nation’s imagination as holiday seasons and Super Bowls, it is worth brands thinking about how they could take advantage the next time the country heads to the polls.

5 lessons from Trump’s victory

Whilst I certainly won’t claim to have predicted a Trump win, I can certainly understand how he’s managed it.  Here’s 5 lessons that we can learn from his victory.

  1. Have a simple and clear purpose

Trump’s point of view – that America is in decline and is in need of radical change – was simple and clearly articulated.

Clinton was essentially running an incumbent’s campaign and was more focused on the threat her opponent posed than on what she would do for the country.

It turns out that this is a ‘change’ election.  More people are dissatisfied with the direction of the country than satisfied with it and they felt that Trump represented the best chance of altering it.

  1. Earned media is more important than paid

Hillary Clinton has significantly outspent Trump on advertising; Clinton looks to have spent around $210 million (and outside groups supporting her have spent around $100 million) on TV advertising whilst Trump has spent around $75 million (and his supporters just over $37 million).

However, Trump has generated significantly more earned media – one estimate gives him nearly double the earned media value over the last 12 months.

  1. If you don’t have much to spend, spend it late

Trump’s campaign knew that they were going to be outspent overall and so waited until the last minute to unleash a blitz of TV ads.  This is sensible as there’s plenty of research to suggest that political advertising’s effect is fairly short-lived.

  1. A good ground game isn’t enough

Hillary Clinton’s campaign contacted twice as many voters as Trump’s; exit polls show that 17% said they were spoken to by Clinton’s campaign v.s 8% saying they were reached by Trump’s.

But Trump’s dominance in the air war (see earned media share point) rendered it insignificant.

  1. Know who will decide the election and speak about what matters to them

Trump’s campaign felt that they could hold all the states that went for Romney and flip mid-Western states like Ohio, Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin.

Given the demographics of these states, Trump relentlessly spoke about the cultural and political issues that matter most to (largely white) working class people.


Clinton unleashes final wave of attacks

Hillary Clinton’s campaign have released a barrage of attacks on Donald Trump that seek to remind people of the offensive, disrespectful and aggressive things that the Republican has said and done whilst in public life.

Whilst these are clearly targeted at particular groups and demographics that Clinton is seeking to persuade to turn out for her – women, Latinos and Muslims – the campaign will also hope they serve as motivation for her core, liberal support.

The first film released in this sequence of attacks was ‘Captain Khan’; in the video the father of an American soldier of Muslim faith tells viewers how his son lost his life in Iraq in order to save the lives of his comrades.  The ad concludes with the father of Captain Khan asking Trump if his son would have been welcome in the USA under his presidency.  It’s moving stuff.

In ’27 million strong’ actor Jimmy Smits, who appeared in the political drama The West Wing, narrates a poem about the strength of the Latino population.  It’s beautifully written and fantastically delivered alongside black and white imagery of Hispanic Americans.  It was made by an agency called Alma, who are based in Miami and specialise in ‘multicultural insights’.

The third spot is similar to a number of other commercials that Clinton’s campaign have run since ‘grab-gate’.  It’s less emotive than ‘Mirrors‘, but makes a more logical argument that Trump’s views on women are deep-seated and firmly held.

And the most recent film that Clinton has released is called ‘We Are America’ and acts as a summation of all of the above and aims to leave viewers thinking “you’re right… our country is better than this guy”.

Cautious Clinton campaign sticks with creative that’s moving the dial

iQ Media have released a report analysing the ad spend of the official Trump and Clinton campaigns over the last 30 days.

The data shows that, unsurprisingly, the candidates are focusing their spend on local TV stations (rather than national networks) in battleground states.  It also shows that, as I wrote last week, Trump is outspending Clinton the final weeks of the campaign.

One thing that jumped out to me was the fact that Trump is airing a number of different TV commercials at a relatively similar weight, whilst Clinton is only really pushing one.

Clinton campaign focus spend on one TV ad
Trump is running a number of ads at roughly equal weight

This indicates to me that Trump is varying his message depending on the political context of the state (you can get a flavour of his ads here), but Clinton’s campaign feel they’ve landed on a piece of creative that is moving the dial.

The spot, called ‘Mirrors’ (below), uses Trump’s own words to portray the Republican nominee as having a negative attitude towards women and asks voters “is this the President we want for our daughters?”

The power of the creative comes from the authenticity with which the cultural insight – that young women are often put under huge social pressure to look and behave in a certain way – is brought to life.

Despite the fact that it has over 5 million views (the most popular film on her YouTube channel),  it will come as a surprise to some that her campaign isn’t varying the copy from state to state; in 2012 there was huge amounts of hype around the way the Obama campaign varied their ads depending on events and the demographics of the viewer.

But the Clinton campaign’s research must show that ‘Mirrors’ is working and therefore, in a typically cautious way, they’ve decided not to take a risk on other creative.