Who’s inside the Russian Doll?

New research shows that the US Presidential campaign run by a Russian state-sponsored troll farm was highly professional; this is significant as it makes it more likely that their effort to influence the result in Trump’s favour was effective. How did this troll farm, based in a country with little experience of elections, acquire such political expertise?

Last week Facebook provided evidence to the US Congress which confirmed that around 3,000 ads, bought by a Russian troll farm called the Internet Research Agency, reached voters during the US Presidential election.

Facebook estimate that 10 million people in the USA saw “at least one” advert placed through an account run by the troll farm.

That is a very large number of people when you consider how few voters decided the outcome.

There were only 2.8 million votes separating Trump and Clinton in the popular vote: in the closest 10 states the combined difference between them was only 585,319.

Difference between votes gained by Trump and Clinton

If the ads seemed as if they were sponsored by cranks (so were likely to be disregarded) and were run against a random selection of 10 million voters, one might assume they made no difference.

But research carried out by Jonathan Albright – a faculty associate at Harvard’s  Center for Internet & Society and a research director on Digital Journalism at Columbia University – shows the Russian activity was anything but amateur.

To summarise their approach:

1. Set up a series of front groups (470 uncovered so far) designed to appeal to different segments of the population: names of the Facebook Pages include Blacktivists, United Muslims of America, Heart of Texas, Secured Borders, and LGBT United.

2. Write organic posts on divisive issues in ways that are likely to polarise readers (nothing spreads as fast on social media as outrage).

3. Use the data gained from the types of pages and posts that people respond to as the basis for paid-for advertising.

4. Run ads that are tailored to these specific audiences which are designed (according to Albright who has analysed all of them) “to get people not to vote”.

Negative campaigning work in lots of ways, but research shows that one of the most effective aspects of ‘attack ads’ is their ability to reduce turnout.

Given the sophistication of the Russian troll farm’s approach to targeting, the tight focus of the creative, and the hugely significant number of people reached by paid advertising, it’s hard to argue their campaign had no impact. And that’s without accounting for the organic posts which reached tens of millions.

Some suggest Clinton lost because of low Democratic turnout at the polls. States like Wisconsin are cited where in 2016 Trump won with the same number of votes as gained by Romney in 2012 (when Obama won the state).


Is it possible that hundreds of thousands of soft Clinton supporters in Wisconsin were the target of the Russian troll farm’s advertising campaign? Absolutely. We will only know if Facebook or Congress make public the targeting used in the troll farm’s ad buys.

Would serving a large volume of advertising – specifically designed to convince people with a weak propensity to vote, but with a preference for Clinton – persuade 27,258 Wisconsin citizens to stay at home? It’s certainly conceivable.

The sentence “A Russian state-sponsored information war led to the unlawful election of a US President” reads like one from a conspiracy theorist.

On the other hand, the statement “tens of thousands of people decided to stay at home, rather than head to the polls, after being bombarded by data-enriched ads deliberately designed to depress turnout” doesn’t seem far-fetched at all.

The big answered question remains: was there was any collusion between the troll farm and the Trump campaign and, if not, who’s the political brain inside the Russian Doll?

There’s a few more layers still to go.


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.

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.



“Is political advertising dead?” #QTWTAIN

QTWTAIN, for the uninitiated, is an acronym of ‘Questions To Which The Answer Is No’ that was originated by journalist John Rentoul.

It refers to the age-old tactic used by commentators to create a sensational story out of nothing by writing “headlines in the form of questions to which the author or publisher implies that the answer is yes when anyone with any sense knows it is no“.

This weekend, the front page of the Financial Times Life & Arts supplement was adorned with a blatant QTWTAIN.

s article has been forwarded on to me by pretty much everyone I’ve ever met with a comment along the lines of “ooooo sounds like the death knell for your boring blog MATE; you will have to find something even more niche to write about now (if such a topic even exists)”.

To save myself the hassle of coming up with a suitably hilarious, whilst seemingly-well-informed, response to each of them, I thought I would pen a short retort here.

Garrahan raises some valid points and concerns that I agree with:

  • There is certainly a big consumer trend towards ad-blocking & ad-avoidance that is challenging the ad industry as a whole (though this doesn’t impact political advertising any more than it does those seeking to promote soap powder).
  • There hasn’t been a standout political ad of the 2016 US Presidential campaign (though this is a subjective observation and may be contradicted by response and tracking data).
  • The Remain campaign’s roster of ad agencies didn’t manage to land a piece of creative that captured the imaginations of the nation in the same way as we have sometimes seen in previous elections (though this says more about the difficulty of the brief & political context than it does about political advertising as a discipline).

The only comments made that really irked me were those of the Vote Leave campaign chiefs.

Paul Stephenson, Communications Director for Vote Leave, was reported to have said that “billboards are relics from another era”.  This couldn’t be more wrong.  In a world of ad-blocking and ad-free subscription services billboards are one of the few-remaining channels where you can guarantee reach and impact and you can buy them in the areas of the country where they’re most needed.  Indeed, the latest data from the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising shows that outdoor advertising is the second most effective media channel (TV being the first).

And I was surprised by Dominic Cummings, Vote Leave’s Campaign Director, comments that his “advice to people who want to improve communications is hire physicists, not communications people“.  His tune seems to have changed dramatically since he told Campaign Magazine in February that he was looking to hire a “small, hungry and edgy agency that is not afraid to take risks and upset the government“.

So, to summarise, a quick skim of Garrahan’s article might lead people to think that political advertising is in trouble, however those who finish the article will see that the author – correctly in my view – concludes that whilst the tools being used have changed, the discipline remains very much intact and “campaigns have not stopped selling to voters”.  

Creatives against Trump

Donald Trump has provoked the creative community across the world to do their bit to get Hillary Clinton elected.  Below is a selection of the best I’ve found across the internet.

UncleGrey in Copenhagen show that you can’t throw Trump under a bus, but you can accuse him of being unhinged on the side of one


Wieden & Kennedy in Portland, Ore run a food truck serving baloney sandwiches
Skate the hate away with Hateboards by Dalatando Almeida,  Ben Buswell and Liam Buswell in London, UK
Trump running for president has made life “become stranger than fiction”
The campaign ran in New York and is by Alex Reinoso, Alessandro Echevarria & Nick Elliott


Two weeks until polls close – Trump launches last minute ad-blitz

It’s two weeks to go until polls open in the US and I’ve written an article for Campaign about how Trump is trying to close the gap with a last minute ad blitz.

You can read the piece here, which includes a reel of his latest adverts and an analysis as to why it might be effective.