Don’t touch that dial. Despite the more sophisticated uses of social media, big data, and earned media, the political TV ad is far from dead.
All of the major presidential candidates have so far deployed a limited air campaign in hopes of attracting money and votes. But as a means of communication, are they effective or even persuasive to their intended audiences?
There are clear strategies behind the first ads from Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. At least two of these ads are very similar to product introduction campaigns we would see in the consumer-packaged goods category. In many respects, the candidates are consumer-packaged products. But each one takes a different strategy in attracting support through their campaign commercials heading into the voting in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.
Perhaps the most surprising ad so far comes from one of the most surprising candidates—Bernie Sanders. In a field where every candidate is in some way shouting at the voters, Sanders found a powerful way connect without saying a word.
Sanders’ use of the Simon & Garfunkel song “America” underneath the imagery of everyday Americans and people packing into Sanders’ campaign rallies give the illusion of a country longing to re-discover itself. This is an aspirational ad that plays to our emotions and hopes through the use of a beloved folk song from the late 1960’s.
For Millennials, the ad appeals to their need of belonging and their search to build a future in their own image. For their baby boomer parents, the Simon and Garfunkel song is a powerful priming cue—a time machine that takes them back to their own idealistic youth when they too wanted to “look for America.”
Keep in mind, when “America” was recorded in 1968, the country was at a pivotal political and social crossroad. That year witnessed the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Kennedy, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, and the upheaval at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The song that so much appealed to a new generation of Americans at that time has now been re-branded by Sanders as anthem for another new generation.
All good advertising should create an emotional bond between the product and the viewer—this one makes a powerful attempt.
Where Sanders effectively uses nostalgia as an ad strategy, Trump just as effectively uses fear.
By playing up to voters’ fear of terrorism Trump is effectively using Prospect Theory to mine for votes. The behavioral economic theory holds that people are more fearful of potential loss than they are assured of a potential gain. By tying terrorism to immigration, Trump uses those fears to make an argument that he is the candidate who will keep them safe.
Hillary Clinton doesn’t outright use fear as her strategy, but she certainly is trying to appeal to voters’ anxieties about their economic and social struggles.
In her latest ad, Clinton is not necessarily competing against Sanders, but instead republicans to whom she believes are not looking out for all Americans.
Her message argument is that she’s fighting for all people who think they don’t have a chance.
Finally, Ted Cruz trumpets his competence and authenticity.
In many respects he’s re-introducing himself to voters in his latest TV ad as they prepare to head to the polls. This ad is a clear appeal to rural voters reminding them of his Christian faith, commitment to freedom, and his political accomplishments. While the ad doesn’t mention any specific opponent, it clearly attempts to differentiate himself from Donald Trump and Marco Rubio as the accomplished conservative in the race.
When you break down all of the ads, there is a distinct strategy to each of them. (Figure 1) They all have individual targeted audiences and a fairly clear message argument.
Arguably, Sanders may have the most powerfully aspirational ad of them all. Trump effectively uses fear to motivate us to pay attention to his message. Clinton plays to our desire to get ahead, and Cruz appeals to his competence help restore America.
These are just four ads from four of the top candidates. The race is young. Stand by… and don’t touch that dial.
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