. . . and why the outcome shouldn’t be a surprise. Paul Costantoura, who runs research business Review Partners, which listens to what people really think on behalf of advertisers and their agencies, lifts the lid on what went so right for Trump and so Wrong for Hilary.
Apparently the US election result was a surprise.
But not such a surprise if you consider which candidate’s advertising demonstrated they were actually listening to America’s swinging voters.
There were hundreds of ads from all the candidates throughout the Primaries and the Presidential race, but I’d like to give you a quick tour of the 12 US election ads that I think defined the outcome.
Instead of listening to people, it seemed that all the commentators had their head in the data. Because apparently big data – and little (polling) data are supposed to give us special insights into how people really feel. The last thing you want to do is actually listen to people.
Pollsters, like the legendary Nate Silver got it wrong – even though he claims he got it less wrong than everyone else (he gave Trump a 29 per cent chance of winning, but he says the odds from other polls were worse). If you want the technical details, they are here.
There was also surprise because Hilary won the popular vote but lost the election – just like Kim Beazley did against John Howard many years ago in Australia.
I had the privilege of working as the strategic planner at Saatchi & Saatchi on Beazley’s campaign – which convinced me that elections are won or lost on personal brands – and that political parties don’t always listen.
So, in the US elections, who had the most motivating personal brand? And who was actually listening rather than polling?
By looking at the advertising, we can find the answers to both questions.
Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were listening – and they both had the most compelling personal brands. Hillary Clinton was not and did not.
Let’s start with Bernie Sanders.
On March 2, 2016 he ran an ad in which he was passionate about US jobs being lost overseas, disastrous trade deals and the need to create jobs at home.
His slogan? Bernie introduced the concept of ‘us’ with the simple line ‘Join us’. His campaign was truly about creating a movement to bring people together to challenge the establishment.
What about his vision for America? On April 4, 2016 he let Simon and Garfunkel tell the story with the help of a film editor.
In this ad, without one spoken word, he offered a passionate, emotional, all embracing hope for the future to Americans, from millennials to baby-boomers.
His slogan? ‘A future to believe in’.
And who did Bernie think was responsible for the destruction of the American dream for average Americans?
On April 14, he ran this ad, which levelled the blame at the corrupt political system, which was on the payroll of Wall Street.
Bernie was listening.
Remember, he was talking to Democrats, not the stereotypical red-necked Republicans. Democrats with a social conscience knew he was right and they supported him in droves. And he was building a compelling personal brand that people could believe in.
His success surprised everyone, particularly the Democrat establishment, which thought he was offering a loony socialist view of the world, which was un-American. And he came very close to tossing the party’s favoured daughter for the nomination.
Fast forward to November 4, 2016 and one of Donald Trump’s final ads before the election. In it he sets out his vision for America.
Using rhetoric that could have been borrowed straight from Bernie Sanders, he lays the blame on the corrupt political establishment, disastrous trade deals, which have sent jobs overseas, and large corporations, which have ‘stripped our country of its wealth’.
The ad finishes by capturing Bernie Sander’s concept of ‘us’ with this brilliant line, which hands the power back to the people: ‘The only thing that can stop this corrupt machine is you. The only force strong enough to save our country is us.’
Trump’s opponents focused their attack on him as a person. However, his own campaign focus was always on ‘you’ and ‘us’. His attacks on Clinton were widely documented but, in his messaging to his supporters, he talked more about his audience than he did about himself.
The other thing about Trump’s campaign is the intense, single-minded attention on one personal, patriotic, values-based idea at a time, which sent a message of hope for the future – just like Bernie Sanders had done.
On August 1, 2016, he focussed on the iconic self-belief that forms the mythology of America’s past and present.
Trump didn’t have Hollywood movie stars on his side, but watch how he makes a hero out of every ‘average’ American in this ad.
To counter Clinton’s single-minded focus on Trump’s disrespect for women, on October 4, 2016 his campaign team came up with an ad explaining the practical benefits for women from Trump. You might not believe the mum in the ad, but she reinforces the idea that Trump was listening to ‘Americans just like us’.
So, while Trump (or someone in his campaign team) was listening to swinging voters, Hilary Clinton’s campaign, in a classic own-goal, dished up a speech proving she was only listening to her inner circle and didn’t know or care who these people even were.
Her ‘deplorables’ reference will go down in history as one of the dumbest things a politician could say about the people who were deciding their vote.
I’m sure Trump’s agency couldn’t believe their luck when she wrote the ad for them.
Sure, she and her team thought she was only criticising the gun-toting white supremacists that the media kept telling her were supporting Trump.
But they were wrong.
His support was growing amongst reasonable people who trusted that God, flag and the protestant work ethic would bring them rewards in this life, but were left destitute by the GFC, trillions spent on wasteful wars and Wall St greed.
I suspect these people began the campaign wanting justice, but they ended up wanting revenge against the system which had stolen their futures.
As a brand strategy, relying on negative ads criticising the competition rarely works in the real world, but hardened political hacks will tell you it is the best form of election campaigning.
This one, run by the Clinton campaign on November 3, 2016 certainly threw a bucket-full at Trump. No doubt it strengthened Clinton’s support among the faithful, but watch out for the end line … ‘We are not him.’
So the call to action is presumably … vote for me … because I’m not him.
Remember, both candidates were the most unliked candidates in 30 years of polling and Real Clear Politics shows that both of them had negative favourability ratings throughout 2016.
So it’s hard to see how a campaign strategy based on telling voters that ‘I am less bad than he is’ will be effective. Not a great personal brand.
The Democratic campaign seemed obsessed with anti-Trump ads and there were some pretty strange ones.
Like this one, which I don’t understand, but it seems to be claiming Trump might be autistic and that people with autism can’t be trusted.
Or this one, which seems to do Trump’s job for him among blacks by reminding them that they have nothing to lose by voting for Trump. Again, the end line ‘everything’ would have been written by Democrat insiders for insiders.
There were lots of positive Clinton ads as well. But it is hard to really grasp their single-minded message and what they say about the Clinton brand.
On Nov 5, 2016 she ran this ad featuring the star power of Katy Perry. But can you work out what the single strong message is?
Clinton’s final ad ran on November 7, 2016. Called ‘Tomorrow’ it ran for two minutes and sought to clarify the final reason(s) for voting for Hillary. Watch how she uses ‘I’ a lot, and again, can you work out the central message?
Did you notice how the copywriter included this line: ‘we’ve come through some hard economic times’. I’m sure a lot of Americans who had lost their jobs and houses were responding – have we?
On the night of the election, when it became clear that Clinton would lose, she sent a strong, unspoken message to her supporters and the rest of America about her personal brand.
Thousands of her faithful supported waited under the glass ceiling at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Centre for their triumphant leader to appear and speak about breaking the glass ceiling.
And she didn’t turn up.
Many Americans had suspected Hilary’s brand identity of ‘stronger together’ was not authentic. So by sending her distraught supporters home without even seeing her, she confirmed this suspicion.
Presumably she felt unable to be ‘together’ with them in defeat.
I’ve only featured a few of the hundreds of campaign ads. If you had a spare few days, you might like to look at the rest, which can be found here.