'You're fired!" — Political ads after Donald Trump
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It was almost a hundred years ago that the Philadelphia retailer John Wanamaker famously said, “Half of the money I spend in advertising is wasted. Problem is, I can’t figure out which half.”

That quote always brings a nervous laugh in ad industry meetings, because the same uncertainty lingers today, even as advertising has evolved from print to broadcast to web to social media.

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There is no more vital laboratory to answer that question than political advertising. The stakes couldn’t be higher. It’s 50.1 percent or go home.

It seems that every four years, the winning campaign defines a new trend. The last one was Big Data, which directed the Obama ground game to victory in 2008 and 2012.

This year, no matter the outcome of the race, the most lasting trend may be the admission that traditional advertising strategies do not work — at least when it comes to the race for the White House.

Already in 2016, through the presidential primary elections of both parties and the general election, north of $500 million has been spent on presidential ads. By November 8, that figure could be close to $1 billion. 

While political strategies and advertising targeting practices have evolved over the years, one tactic remains at the heart of all political advertising approaches: the attack ad. And this year, the attack ad is a giant waste of money.

Let’s look at Exhibit A: During the primaries, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE’s GOP opponents burned through more than $100 million in advertising, essentially to no effect (except for enriching his opponents’ political consultants). 

Trump’s communications strategy has been driven by his instincts. For him the objective, clearly, has been to control the dialogue at almost any cost – even when doing so involves being the target of negative press, as was the case with the contretemps with Judge Curiel, the Gold Star Khan family, Miss Universe, the “Access Hollywood” tapes and his still unrevealed tax returns. 

The problem, of course, is that he has often controlled the headlines and the attention of the public at the expense of allowing negative news on Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGrassley blasts Democrats over unwillingness to probe Clinton GOP lawmakers cite new allegations of political bias in FBI Top intel Dem: Trump Jr. refused to answer questions about Trump Tower discussions with father MORE to sink in with swing voters, as was the case with the DNC’s trashing of Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersSchumer: Franken should resign Franken resignation could upend Minnesota races Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign MORE, the Comey FBI press conference and several of the “pay-for-play” revelations about the Clinton Foundation. 

The highly negative personal contest will, er, Trump the negative advertising. Americans are watching it like a car wreck; they can’t take their eyes off of it, and they tune out the advertising.

A good question is why campaign consultants of both parties have stuck with the "same-ol’-same’ol" negative ads in spite of their lack of effect? There are three answers that are not very flattering to the trade.

  1. Most of the ads have been produced with a small target audience in mind – the very wealthy donors who control the PACs, Super PACs and fund the campaign advertising drives.  

  2. They tend to love the negative ads; the more negative, the better – even if voters don’t pay attention to them.These cut-and-paste ads are very inexpensive and quick to produce. This often makes the donors feel they are getting a bargain, which is why they seem so willing to overlook the third reason…

  3. Campaign advertising has become a gold mine — no, make that uranium mine — for the consultant class.

Congress took on — and essentially surrendered on — the knotty issue of campaign funding reform many years ago. The result has been a breathtaking increase in campaign fund-raising and spending, and an almost complete obscuring of transparency or accountability. 

In considering this, it’s useful to remember that our Congress today is essentially comprised of 535 advertising agencies, one for every Congressperson, always in the midst of conducting or preparing for another campaign.

And it’s also useful to note that another consequence of campaign spending reform has been to mandate full-fare rates in media purchases – allegedly to eliminate the corruption of special discounts. Unsurprisingly, there has been no argument against this “reform” from the congressional ad industry.

Starting November 9, as the dust settles after the Race for the White House concludes, it will be worth noting how the political class picks itself up off the floor and moves toward 2018 and 2020. Will they look for a new answer to the age-old question: How to get to 50.1 percent?

My guess is that the major parties and candidates will stick to the tried-and-true, in spite of the fact that it has been tried and tried, and is clearly no longer true. That will provide opportunity for a new insurgent force to rise, attacking this glaring strategic weakness to make a serious run at their monopoly on power.

Stay tuned.

Miller, a former creative director at McCann-Erickson and founder of the political consulting firm, Sawyer/Miller Group, is currently the creative director of 50PointOne — a DC-based communications firm that leverages political campaign and marketing techniques to get clients to the win.


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