Morals, Ethics, and the Business of Politics
It is fair to say that when it comes to politics, “ethics” will never come up in a game of word association. Ironically? Perhaps. Synonymously? Likely not.
This 2020 “election season” is one that will have a huge impact not only on the trajectory of the United States in every area of significance--from the economy, human/civil rights, climate crisis, etc., but also with just as much on a global scale. As one of the more “developed” countries (a term that I’m sure to those on the outside looking in is highly arguable in 2020) we can wield great power and influence for both good and bad. What happens during this next presidential term will reverberate across the globe and history books.
That is not however, the focus of this blog. The focus is what I’ve been exploring for the past few weeks with various groups, especially our Bring on the Ballot Gen Z cohort, are the tactics of both sides to engage, influence, and ultimately convert potential voters. Truth-be-told it’s also something I paid attention to and further dove into with a colleague after the 2016 election.
The marketing and positioning of each candidate and party leading up to the election. While 2016 gave us a taste of the marketing machine that the current President employs, 2020 will be a year that should instill even more trepidation and wariness within each of us, given how many digital platforms and marketing levers can be turned on to reach American citizens--to give you a sense, think of the For Your Consideration campaigns you get flooded with come Oscar season and then make it tenfold as those are limited by budgets to just targeting specific audiences, not an entire nation of most anyone over 18 years of age. The budgets available to each side are not created equal nor are the marketing strategists behind each campaign. Where one thrives, one lacks. Unfortunately, at this time it is not the candidate we need in office this next highly-crucial term that has the home field advantage.
I won’t even bring any third parties into this as there we’d really get into the imbalance of campaign dollars. In 2020, there is no room for a third-party in this election. The stakes are much too high and none of us can afford to be so selfish as to entertain that as an option.
Back to the two candidates…
In one show of the seemingly never-ending fiscal opulence of the second-term seeker’s campaign is the almost wasteful but highly visible 24-7 YouTube ads, tying up prime real estate on that platform. The approach seems to be to target everyone, as I can’t even escape them and I’m far from being that candidate’s target audience. For any creative, product owner, or corporation such high-visibility is a wet dream, but for any marketer seeking conversions and meaningful engagement, targeting that broadly is campaign suicide when the day of reckoning where performance and results of the spend are reported.
Sure, having a 1,000x reach is impressive but a .01% conversion rate isn’t going to move your product or gain you a significant lift in viewers. However, those are very clearly not the KPIs when it comes to remaining as the Chief Executive of the United States of America. Nope, this one’s all about the dog and pony show and display of power--as close to an all-day, all-night cable television channel dedicated to airing one person and one message all day and all night. This campaign as a whole, but this element in particular plays to both the insecurities and the vanities of the subject. To drive that point home, I understand if I’m getting served that content when I’m in Texas. However, when the same carries over to when I’m in California, it becomes quite clear that those ad budgets run deep. Believe me when I say it’d be much cheaper to buy up 20-50 billboards in Iowa for a month than it is to run a YouTube Homepage Masthead Video ad for a few days.
Yet, I know most of us are smarter than to just chalk this campaign up to that quest for power and we must give credit where credit is due and acknowledge that it does more than that. I’d like to assume that the campaign lead and the media buyers are smart and seasoned enough to know the secondary effect these videos and other collateral have on the audiences, which is of course the triggering of either the desired positive response to the messaging or a more negative frustration and anger that is for the desired candidates campaign more detrimental as either way they trigger a further divide. Detrimental, as the genius lies not only in the fact that it divides the supporters of each candidate against each other, but the Biden supporters amongst themselves as a revolving door of arguments ensue against each other with a focus on distractions that take away from building larger momentum and support. Mission accomplished. This is only ONE of the many effective levers that are currently on by that campaign.
The New Yorker just published an article focusing on the re-election campaign’s app which I initially clicked on out of a curiosity to know just what data they are collecting and also to see if the article would state the number of app downloads to date. What I found instead was that a former vendor that I’d used in the past (just about every major entertainment player and consumer goods corporation has employed them at some point) was behind the app and the audience acquisition and data collection/mining efforts. I hadn’t used this company in a few years, but was a combination of amused and irritated to find the last campaigns my teams had worked on with them in their current company overview deck.
This company was one of the leaders in the Multi-screen as a Service (MAAS) at the time, an audience acquisition which allowed for further monetization-resulting audience engagement. I would recommend reading this overview as a crash-course into what technology is being employed for this campaign, in particular the location-based services. Their leadership has seen some turnover as further broken down in this article. Their quality has waned over the past few years and I haven’t needed their services in current roles.
However, this did present a question for me as a marketer, consumer, and a person in general. Now knowing the extent of their involvement in this re-election campaign, could I ever work with them as a service provider ever again? The answer was one that required zero contemplation. I have zero issues blacklisting them from my shortlist of vendors. My moral compass glaringly does not align with theirs at this time and just like many other well-known corporations in the recent past, I do not mind severing ties professionally and personally with what I deem unethical or that which is aiding the unscrupulous and immoral. The actual services and technology that this particular vendor, one of many in this campaign’s arsenal I am sure, including location-based services and geo-fencing along with the data collection and device-spying/listening may be what would scares folks the most, but really most of that you are already experiencing in some way. We as mobile-superusers give our information away all day long, if we’re going to choose to start feigning being indignant and calling “foul play” then we’re better served starting with
Amazon and Google, who actually are two of the biggest collectors of data. The location-based and geo-fencing also shouldn’t instill fear, if you have other service or consumer goods apps installed you already get these all of the time. Do you think it’s magic and serendipitous that Baskin-Robbins is sending you a text or push notification offering a buy one get one free ice cream cone on a 110 degree summer day? Or that Taco Bell is giving you a special “Happy Hour” reward at your nearest location for one day only? Or let’s go back to Oscar season, what about the promise of a free large popcorn if you buy a ticket to “insert any contender” here, or that in pre-pandemic days a specific movie theater would remind you of your rewards status and points when you happened to be across the street from it having lunch with friends? None of these things just happen. These are marketing efforts in full effect, all on to get you to take action.
So what we, those who are not for another four years of what we’ve just experienced, should actually be concerned with is that the re-election campaign has a marketing team that actually understands how to use all of these tools and that they have the budgets to keep them running all day and all night. Sure, as someone who has vast experience in getting some of these levers to market and being one of the first to get to use many of these even serving as a consultant on some, I am not afraid of these as I know them. You can’t fear something you have a vast understanding of, you can understand the dangers and impact but if you know it you can also help to challenge it. In the meantime, the other side that we desperately need to win have started a virtual campaign for voters on Animal Crossing. Thank goodness , I was really getting worried that our potential 46th “termers” didn’t have a cohesive campaign at all (insert sarcastic tone here, sorry not sorry). Sigh. I’m still waiting to see an actual marketing campaign that unifies and invigorates come to life and all I’m seeing currently is something that was perfectly described in another ad I was forced to listen to earlier from KIA where in the voiceover they used the words “Cautious restraint of age” (describing themselves as “We're not the oldest SUV-maker around. But what we lack in the cautious restraint of age, we make up for with the gravel-pounding ambition of youth”) and I thought, yep that might be where we currently stand with marketing for who inevitably my vote will be cast for this year.
However, I am not dismayed. We have roughly about 50 days or so left before November 3rd and I know some major fundraiser efforts from the entertainment and tech sides alone are in play at the moment. Regardless of how many more dollars are raised though, the time has come for us all to turn into Marketers for the candidate that we need in office. Actually, not for the candidate we need as I keep telling my team of Gen Zers, but for the 46th Presidential Term that we need and everything that encompasses. Since 2016, each year has brought with it more that we become desensitized to, more that gets reversed, more steps backwards than forwards and we really can’t afford another term of that--not only can we not afford it, but there are many who will not survive it.
Yet, I assure you that there is hope and although it will take many of us working together, we can help the right candidate get elected come November--even if it means me teaching each of you Marketing 101 for the next month on top of all of my other responsibilities. Remember, just like these marketing levers and tools can be used for negative they can be used for good just as if not more effectively.
So to end this on a not-so-negative tone and in the spirit of everyone putting their marketing hat on, I’ll share an idea that an acquaintance brought to me just this past month in an effort to help the voter registration efforts that will hopefully amuse each of you as much as it did me (after I stopped myself from becoming indignant and annoyed after first processing the ask). I challenge each of you to think of better ideas (please) and also ideas that capitalize on existing reach, there really isn’t much time to start from scratch. So, this acquaintance, who is a good friend of a friend and a fairly successful entertainment agent (you’ll see why I mention his profession in a minute) ran the idea of creating a thirty-days until the election countdown calendar. So of course I asked him what would be different about it, since there are so many out there currently (just google “how many days until November 3rd” and at least a dozen results will surface). He went on to explain that it would be like an actual calendar but a virtual version that could be people’s screensavers. I mentioned that it might be a little too much for people, they already can’t escape politics on their feeds and now with ads everywhere but then he interrupted me and said, “No, no, I think A LOT of people would willingly visit the site and download the various days--because it’d feature women in “vote” swimsuits. A different woman each day.”
At that point, I started laughing thinking he was joking. So, long story short, he actually was only partially contacting me to get my opinion on the likelihood of success of this, but also to ask if I wanted to be in his calendar. I responded, “Insert Name Here -- Not only did we just celebrate the 100th Anniversary of most women’s right to vote, but there is a woman on the ballot as an option for VP and you want to put us in swimsuits to get more men to vote?” He was convinced it could help, which after I told him there was no way I was going to pose in a swimsuit for anything, not when there are plenty of TikTokers and underemployed models/actresses, etc. who would probably willingly do it “for a good cause” who already have social feeds full of revealing pics, who also would bring pre-existing audiences with them. I don’t even mean that in a demeaning way as there is nothing wrong with posing in a swimsuit. I’m not a prude, but I don’t think I have a single photo of myself published anywhere in a bathing suit so I’m not even sure where he got the idea that I might participate--so now you get the indignant part.
Anyhow, after basically turning down being involved with the project in any capacity I did admit that just because I’m clearly not the target demo for this, that there was a time when everything from beer companies (Budweiser Girls?) to fast food (Carl’s Jr.) that type of marketing did work for specific target audiences and if that’s who he was going after then best of luck, we need as many people voting against the re-election campaign as possible, so I’m not going to be a snob about it—but to keep in mind that even these companies have shifted away from that type of marketing. I don’t know if this project will see the light of day, but if you happen to encounter it in October now you know a little of the back-story.
What I will continue to encourage is for all of you to continue to think outside-of-the-box and hope that as you hopefully also turn yourself into a marketer (even if just to your own friends and family) that you think of “more widely-appealing” and not tone-deaf ideas. Also, consider reach as I mentioned earlier as many built-in audiences that can be tapped into at once as possible in particular in swing states the greater the chance of the win that is needed in a few weeks.