POTUS 2016: A marketing post-mortem


Ahhhh I didn't want to but I am...

Read Time: 5 minutes

Yes, this goes in the "didn't want to but guess I will" file. And I'll offer my common caveat that this post is NOT a commentary on individual candidates, political positions, etc. etc. blah blah blah (which I think nicely sums up how most everyone actually did feel about the campaign of 2016). I'm sure I'll get lots of blowback from recesses on the right and the left. And, as always, if you want me fired you can email dontgivead_mn@timmask.buzz.

This piece zeros in on a small, small area of the campaign, but one which I think could possibly have been a huge difference maker. Smaller than marketing, smaller than messaging, smaller perhaps even than advertising: the campaign slogans.

Eight Seconds

If you're still with me on this article then CONGRATULATIONS, you have an attention span longer than the average modern day human. As you can probably surmise, the average attention span as of 2015 was eight seconds.  Seconds. As in, not very long at all. As in shorter than the attention span of a goldfish (no joke). While this has been a boon for the professional rodeo circuit, it has made communicating complex ideas and conducting substantive public narrative all but impossible. We may binge watch Westworld, but when it comes to the ins and outs of everyday life, economics, and commerce, we barely hang on longer than Cooper Davis </obscurereference>.

The implications of this on a political campaign are obvious. Pundits have for sometime now bemoaned the "bumper sticker" culture that is modern political campaigning, while at the same time feeding the beast with an endless 24/7 barrage of hot takes. I swear the line between sports talk and political programming is getting blurrier and blurrier...wait...isn't Nate Silver working for ESPN now? Maybe we ARE in the Matrix.

So let's accept the fact that political campaigns have an optimum time of eight seconds to get a sticky, impacting, and hopefully authentic message across to potential voters. What's that called, anyone? Yes, a "slogan." Coming from the ad agency world I can tell you that our often incredulous brood tend to turn up our noses at the word "slogan." We interchange it with things like "positioning line" or even a longer "elevator message." But in the realm of modern political campaigning, I have to say that the slogan may just reign supreme.

Meeting the Criteria

To further complicate this matter, the importance that is now placed on platitudes and slogans means that they form the essence of a candidate's brand. Which means they have to meet the five criteria of effective brands: credibility (not 'truth'...hee hee hee), relativity (of the 'matters to the audience' type, not the 'E=MC²' type), uniqueness (can the underlying asset - candidate - own it in a way that others can't), practicality (is it feasible...hee hee hee), and sustainability (will it matter the same tomorrow, as it does today?).

Before we jump into the analysis of these criteria relative to 2016, let's get the DeLorean up to 88mph and check out slogan positioning in the recent presidents past.  Ronald Reagan was best known for "Morning in America." That certainly struck a chord with Americans of the time and met all the above criteria well. Bill Clinton, while not the official campaign slogan, really came to be defined by "I feel your pain."  Again a sentiment that hit home with a lot of Americans at the time. George W. Bush had a more wonkish approach with the ideal of "Compassionate Conservatism," but it tapped into something in the American public. President Obama offered "Hope and Change," which are fundamental and archetypal aspects of the human psyche.

So the two main candidates of 2016 can be boiled down to their sloganic positioning: Make America Great Again (Trump), and I'm with Her (Clinton). Let's examine these and see if we can pull any lessons-learned.


Make America Great Again is something that is very hard to disagree with (PLEASE don't slaughter me here...I am specifically commenting on those FOUR SPECIFIC WORDS only). If you stripped all of the candidate baggage, policy promises, etc., away, those four words carry a meaning that I dare say the majority of Americans agree with. We can argue fine points - some would say that America hasn't really been "great" before due to societal inequities...but still you can't argue with the concept of wanting to make the country "great." Others would say that America never stopped being "great." Still, there is the element of retaining that "greatness." It is credible to believe that American can be great, it is certainly relevant to the American citizens that the country be great, it was unique in the fact that one candidate jumped on it and OWNED it (if by no other means than sheer volume of hats printed), most everyone believes the concept is feasible, and it is certainly a highly sustainable concept.

I'm afraid that I'm with Her is a different story. It fits the credibility test well, but it starts to fall apart from there, at least in terms of emotional effectiveness. I think the slogan came to symbolize, for many, a rally cry to elect the first female president. I think the intent of "I'm with Her" was only partially reflective of the "glass ceiling" moment. I think the campaign and the candidate would like to think that "I'm with Her" meant to supporters and voters that you are "with" Mrs. Clinton in terms of her ideas and policies, her accomplishments and vision. The problem with this is that in the eight-second attention span world, you simply can't assume that your target audience actually has a good understanding of "what you're all about."

We just conducted an election with the two major party candidates who likely had the strongest brand identities of anyone who has ever stood for the office save perhaps George Washington. Even with the knowledge that existed about each candidate, the way they shaped their campaign positioning, driven in large part by the sentiment behind their slogans, really went a LONG way in ultimately defining each of them to the public.

Which way is the mirror facing?

A final epilogue I'd like to add. If you'll notice, each of the campaign slogans that we mentioned earlier from previous presidential campaigns are actively or mildly "outward-facing," meaning that they are tapping into the feelings of the audience to whom a candidate is appealing, not reflective on something specific to the candidate himself. Morning in America and Hope and Change are the two strongest examples of this. Even Bill Clinton's "I feel your pain" took an inwardly focused comment and turned into into an outward-facing expression of empathy. Make America Great Again is a line for citizens, delivered to citizens. I'm with Her points back to the candidate. I think from a subconscious level, this may have a nagging impact on some voters. It's the whole "tell me what you're going to do for me" phenomenon. I doubt very many people would ever admit that, and I doubt that folks may even realize it, but I suspect it might be a small but existent factor.

And that's that

To clarify, this WASN'T a political article. It was an observation and commentary on a marketing aspect that I noticed during this odd, very odd, election cycle. If I offended you, I am sorry. Again, any and all calls for my firing are firmly examined by the higher-ups at timmask.buzz. Reach them again at dontgivead_mn@timmask.buzz.



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