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.


Copyright and usage in political advertising: Bridget Riley example

During the local council elections in the UK last month a few campaign managers got in contact with questions about the clearances they need to get before including photographs and imagery in campaign material.

Ever the obedient client servant, I thought I would post a short note on the subject.

The Institute of Practitioners of Advertising give this definition of copyright:

“An original copyright work is one that is the result of independent, creative effort. It will not be classed as original if it has been copied from something that already exists. Before giving a work protection, the court will check to see that the work is “the author’s own intellectual creation”, an original expression of the creative freedom of the author. As copyright protects the expression of an idea, rather than the idea itself, it only exists if the work has been fixed or recorded in a permanent form.”

So if you find an image online that you think would really bring your leaflet to life, you need to be careful to make sure that it isn’t a piece of original, independent art work.  Copyright protection in the UK is automatic, no official registration is required, so the fact that it is available freely online doesn’t mean that you’re allowed to use it as you please; indeed the fact that it is online means that it is a permanent ‘expression of an idea’ and you should immediately be wary of using it.

For example, the artwork of Bridget Riley – a famous British painter – can be found all over Google images under various search terms.  However, finding it on Google image search doesn’t mean that it’s free for you to use.  If you decided to include the Bridget Riley image in your poster you would be liable to a legal challenge as it is a breach of intellectual property; indeed Bridget Riley doesn’t allow her artistic works to be used in any form of advertising so you really would be in deep trouble.

So, in short, you can only use an image or a photograph if you are the originator or you have permission from the originator to use it, if you use an image for which neither applies, you are at risk of a legal challenge; the only exception is if the originator has been dead for over 70 years.

Every single election period someone is caught out falling foul of this law.  As soon as you distribute a piece of political communication one of the first things your opponents will do is check that you have paid for the right to use everything in the ad.  Any positive impact that your communication may be having will immediately be curtailed if the opposing campaign can show that you have created it without permission.

Obama ad features Romney singing – Firms

Obama has released a new attack ad which features Mitt Romney’s singing voice – mixed to sound even more haunting – as a musical accompaniment to a series of statements which criticise the Republican candidate on his business and financial record.

The hollow singing combined with empty environments shown in the visuals create an eery and uneasy feeling in the viewer.

It’s a strong piece of negative advertising that has clearly touched a chord (sorry…) with the electorate as the video has had over 1 million views within 3 days of launch.  That’s a huge amount for any advert, but particularly impressive for a political ad which doesn’t have anything particularly shocking or amusing in its content.

4 advertising lessons to learn from this election

So the first ‘lessons we can learn from this election’ articles are beginning to emerge in the mainstream media.  Below is an abbreviation of a really good article written by Andrew Harrison – Chief Executive of the RadioCentre – in Marketing Week:

First, predictive research, which anticipates how someone might behave in a hypothetical situation (“If there were a general election tomorrow, how might you vote?”) is a lot less reliable than actual behavioral research (for instance, an exit poll that asks “How did you just vote?”)…Good research is the best data we have; believe it and act on it, don’t be in denial of it – especially when it’s telling you what you might not want to hear.

Second, this election reminded all of us of the real pulling power of old media…This was, in fact, an election battle transformed by weekly TV debates – delivering multiple-million audiences – and shaped by the ensuing press response.

The third lesson is equally fundamental: having identified the appropriate media channel with which to engage your target consumer, you still need to deliver memorable advertising – with a compelling proposition, drama and a memorable selling line.  Just 24 hours after the closest-fought election in a generation, most people were hard pushed to recall a single poster, slogan or party political broadcast. Great brands deserve iconic campaigns

Finally, the most valuable lesson of the election was reserved for all of us involved in brand equity, which is that great brands stay true to their principles – they don’t break covenants with the consumer, don’t do deals, and don’t change strategy whenever an opportunity arises. That’s the route to short-term volume gain and long-term equity erosion. In the words of the textbook, they are “built to last”. Unlike coalitions.

M & C Saatchi v.s. Saatchi & Saatchi

The Conservative Party have drafted in their former creative advertising agency, M&C Saatchi, to work on their campaign in the months coming up to the general election.  Labour’s creative agency is Saatchi&Saatchi and so Maurice and Charles new shop is now taking on the agency, that ousted them as founding partners 15 years ago, in the biggest communication battleground of all.  What an interesting sub-plot to what is already shaping up to be the most exciting general election for over a decade.

In related news Claire Beale, editor of Campaign Magazine, has written this week that

“Recent political advertising has failed to nail a winning – or even a clear – strategy for any of the main parties.  Communications have been confusing at best, incoherent at worst… by embracing consumers as advocates, the parties are failing to score their core messages.”

I can’t help but agree.  With just over a month to go until polling day, let’s hope the various Saatchi’s raise the bar.

Tories Dominate Google Search for Pre-Budget Report

The Conservatives made use of Google’s Adwords platform this week to make sure that anyone searching for ‘Budget’, ‘Pre-Budget Report’ or ‘Treasury’ were directed to their website.  This domination of the top positions provided anyone interested in the content with George Osborne’s view on the state of the economy.

As you can see below, there’s a huge spike in the number of searches around ‘pre-budget report’ and the Conservative Party want to make sure that those searching it can access the Conservative Party’s response to it quickly and easily.   The people searching such terms will be high powered individuals such as bankers and leaders of industry as well as opinion forming elites like journalists and academics – all of whom are worth having on-side.

Spending a relatively small amount of money on adwords to ensure a tiny but highly influential group of people are aware of your stance on the key issue of the next (and arguably any) election seems like a very smart thing to do.

My 5 minutes

Total Politics magazine very kindly asked me to feature in their ‘blogger profile’ section of this month’s edition.  You can read my answers to their question with greater clarity here.  Needless to say, I’ve left issues of the magazine (with the correct page folded at the corner) in every toilet cubicle in the office.