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Is political advertising dead?

Global Influence’s founder, Sven Hughes, is interviewed in this weekend’s Financial Times discussing the US Presidential Election and how emotion is more resonant than facts.

It is 1964, the year after the assassination of John F Kennedy, and America is on edge. A little girl stands in a meadow, counting as she slowly pulls the petals off a flower. When she finishes, a sonorous voice replaces hers, counting down from 10, the image of the girl’s face dissolving into the fury of a nuclear explosion. “These are the stakes,” intones the then US president, Lyndon Johnson. “We must either love each other or we must die.” A mushroom cloud swirls and a message appears: Vote for President Johnson on November 3.

The daisy commercial did not mention Barry Goldwater by name but was a clear reference to the Republican nominee’s nuclear sabre-rattling, and would go down in campaigning history as the ad that enshrined his vulnerabilities and sank his campaign.

Since then, ads and images on both sides of the Atlantic have framed elections. Think of the 1979 Saatchi & Saatchi “Labour Isn’t Working” billboard that helped to propel the Conservatives back to power. Or Lee Atwater’s 1988 commercial, which portrayed the Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis as a lily-livered liberal who allowed Willie Horton, a convicted murderer out on a weekend furlough, only to murder again.

But 2016 has been different. No single image or commercial has encapsulated this year’s election. Fewer ads are running this year, too. Hillary Clinton’s campaign is blanketing swing states with commercials but Donald Trump has largely relied on “earned media” — television appearances provided by America’s cable news networks, which have carried most of his speeches and rallies live. He has begun to spend more on ads but not enough to offset a grim year for the channels that rely on campaign commercials. Kantar Media has slashed its forecast for 2016 US election spending from $4.4bn to $3.65bn — the first such decline in decades.

Some of this is down to a populist candidate who has preferred the sound of his own voice on television to paying for ads. But there is also the digital revolution to reckon with. The rise of online subscription services such as Netlix has hit television ratings, while the millennial generation of people aged 18-32 is harder to reach than their peers in the 1960s and 1970s when most of America would tune in at the same time to watch the same programme.

There are signs of a similar story in Britain. Ad agencies played no role at all in the case of the Leave campaign, which won the summer’s Brexit referendum. The Remain camp hired several agencies but Leave did not, entrusting its video spots to Alex Thompson, a 25 year-old film-maker who worked for free, quitting his job in the creative department of BMB when the London agency would not let him take time off to work on the campaign. Its successful “take back control” slogan was dreamt up by Dominic Cummings, Leave’s campaign chief, rather than an agency creative director. Cummings does not hide his disdain for the advertising world. It “has badly lost its way”, he tells me, and is “full of bullshitting charlatans”.

What is going on? In our age of populism, are we witnessing the end of political advertising? Does the billboard even matter any more?

Moray MacLennan, not surprisingly perhaps, thinks it does. The chief executive of M&C Saatchi has worked on several campaigns — his agency was formed by the Saatchi brothers, the political campaign admen who enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with Britain’s Conservative party — and still represent political clients. M&C worked on the Conservatives’ 2015 general election campaign and propelled to the fore concerns about a prospective Labour government being beholden to the Scottish Nationalist party when it created an image of a miniature Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond’s pocket. Public concern “was … bubbling along”, MacLennan says, “but the ad turned it into the second-biggest issue of the election”.

The Brexit campaign was far tougher. M&C was one of the agencies that worked on Remain, and while MacLennan acknowledges that Leave had a clearer, simpler message, he suggests that new challenges have emerged in the UK and US because of the changed political weather.

“Most elections I’ve been involved in haven’t been as visceral as the US election this year and, to an extent, the Brexit referendum. There is very little focus on the issues and the policies.” Voters are instead responding with “gut instinct”, rather than rational assessment of what might or might not be in their best interest, he says. If that is right, wouldn’t agencies be better off giving up and not getting involved? “It doesn’t mean that ad agencies don’t have a role. But paid-for media has extreme limitations in that climate.”

Clinton, however, has not abandoned paid media. By the end of September her campaign and the unaffiliated groups supporting it had spent $325m across the US. Trump’s campaign, by contrast, had spent $78m but has increased its ad buying in recent weeks.

The Clinton campaign has built its strategy around Trump’s own words: it wants to ensure that no one forgets his incendiary tweets and statements. These ads indicate a shift, says Lenny Stern, co-founder of SS+K, an M&C Saatchi-owned agency in New York that has its roots in political campaigning (Priorities USA, the Clinton-supporting political action committee, or super-Pac, is among its clients). Instead of using advertising to define Clinton or her opponent, the campaign is amplifying the negative aspects of Trump’s personality “across television, digital and social media”, says Stern. They have relentlessly hammered Trump like a chef pounding a piece of meat. “They have not allowed him to get out of that box.”

Technological change means campaigns can target their attack ads with extreme precision. The Clinton camp has built on the databases developed by Obama’s campaigns to identify groups of voters, says Rob Shepardson, co-founder of SS+K. “The Republicans are way behind on this,” he says. The Clinton camp has blended its database with available online user data gleaned from the internet about websites that are searched for and visited. An army veteran in a swing state that had searched for a veteran-related site might be served a relevant Clinton ad that zeroed in on Trump’s disparaging comments about the Republican Vietnam war hero Senator John McCain. “It literally becomes person-to-person targeting.”

The Clinton campaign has also used “addressable” television advertising — the ability to target individual viewers household by household, which is available in some states. This may explain why there hasn’t been the broad, campaign-defining commercial of previous elections: voters are watching different ads specific to their own circumstances. A Trump-supporting man watching the evening news in one house might see an ad for a car in the commercial break. But the woman who lives next door watching the same programme might see a Clinton campaign ad.

There are, of course, some voters who are harder to reach: getting to young people aged between 18 and 32 is tricky. They have tuned out of most mass media and instead get most of their information and entertainment from the internet and social media. Trump is a relentless Twitter user, while a recent much-criticised social media ad from his campaign compared the like­lihood of terrorists pretending to be Syrian refugees to the risk of eating from a bowl of poisoned Skittles.

SS+K, meanwhile, developed the “TrumpBot” on Facebook’s Messenger platform — an automated Trump that responds to prompts with the candidate’s more offensive and outrageous remarks. “It was just unbelievable that this guy running for president was saying these things,” says Shepardson. “We wanted to demonstrate that to people who may not have been hearing it.”

So is the traditional TV spot about to go the way of the dodo? Should creative types at agencies dreaming of becoming the next Charles Saatchi pick a different career? Tamara Ingram, chief executive of J Walter Thompson, insists the right political TV ad can still resonate “with the whole nation”. Tracey Follows, the chief strategy officer at the Future Laboratory, a trends consultancy, says the best approach is a blend of established media and new platforms. “No brand would ever dump TV.”

But unquestionably the digital revolution is transforming the industry. The Leave camp in the Brexit referendum even employed physicists to develop its models. “We ran it empirically and either did not trust our hunches or were at least clear about when we were guessing,” says Cummings. “My advice to people who want to improve communic­ations is hire physicists, not communications people.”

In the run-up to the Brexit vote, Leave used a mix of media, partly because referendum rules restricted its TV spots to the party political broadcast slots given to each side to ensure fairness. Still, Cummings says more than 95 per cent of its £7m budget went to digital media rather than roadside billboards, which have always been a traditional feature of previous UK elections.

“Every single ad guy was saying we should spend a load on big billboards,” says Paul Stephenson, who ran communications for the Leave campaign. But billboards are relics from another era, he argues: digital advertising tells you so much more about how the viewer has interacted with the ad. “Does the person seeing the ad click through? Do they become a volunteer? How active do they become?” he asks. Meanwhile, the Remain camp “would put up a billboard and try to get on the news,” he adds. “Go back to the 1990s and campaigns were all about tactical press conferences. There are so many more ways to reach people now.”

Chief among them? Facebook. “By definition, the people watching TV news are the ones most engaged in the subject, whereas people looking at Facebook aren’t necessarily as politically engaged,” says Stephenson. Thompson, the 25-year-old film-maker, argues that the ad industry is stuck in this idea that everything has to be treated like a TV campaign. “It’s worth just testing stuff online and seeing what works rather than going through a big production process and only making one ad.”

The Brexit referendum and US election race have both been called “post-truth” campaigns. “Appeals to emotion are now often more resonant than facts,” says Sven Hughes, chief executive of Global Influence, a communic­ations agency that has advised governments and charities. Outrage sells, after all. Leave’s factually dubious claim, emblazoned all over a bus, that the UK sent £350m a week to the EU was widely discredited in the media — much of that money is returned via rebates and grants. But it struck a chord with voters, while the Remain camp unwittingly helped sear it in the minds of voters. “It was quite cunning because all the other side did was talk about that figure being incorrect,” says Thompson, who says he wasn’t involved in the decision to use the disputed number. Remain “kept playing into our hands mentioning the figure over and over again”.

The outbreak of populism in the US and across Europe may be shortlived — but even if it endures, it is clear that political campaign advertising has changed. “Addressable” television advertising is only going to become more precise, while Facebook marketing and data analysis that enables precise targeting are not going away.

Still, advertising can come in many forms and doesn’t have to be digital to be effective. In the run-up to the Brexit referendum, the JD Wetherspoon chain of pubs produced 200,000 beer mats that urged drinkers to “take back control” and vote Leave. “You have to go where the voters are talking,” says Sven Hughes. In Britain, at least, that’s “in the pub and online.”

In 1979, Denis Healey, the then UK chancellor, took umbrage at the Labour Isn’t Working billboard, accusing the Tories of “selling politics like soap powder”. Billboards may be on the wane and political television ads may not linger in the memory as they once did, but campaigns have not stopped selling to voters. Even if they are using a decidedly 21st-century toolkit.

Image credit: FT