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Engage Voters, Or Lose the Media Battle

By John Brabender

In the 1960s, media selection was really quite simple.  Most TV viewers back in the day had only three channels from which to choose.  The arrangement was equally uncomplicated:  in exchange for receiving the television programming free of charge, the viewing audience would watch, actually, endure the advertising that went along with it, the likes of Mr. Whipple and Mr. Clean.

Fast forward our television generation to the year 2000. A study was released that said the average individual was being bombarded with a staggering 2,500 advertising messages a day.  Imagine, 2,500!  A more recent study estimates that advertising messages have skyrocketed to a mind-boggling 5,000 advertising exposures per day.  The advertising viewer has had enough of this mind invasion and is increasingly calling the deal off.

In our “fast food” era, where you find advertising inside taxi cabs, on the outside of school buses, and on your mobile phone, yes, even on your banana,  it should be no surprise that it has become very difficult to get an audience to notice advertising at all. It should be equally clear that advertising has become more and more disliked by growing numbers of viewers.  It also should not surprise us that the consumer is prepared to fight back, i.e. to arm itself against the advertising bombardment.  With new technology, such as DVRs that record and fast-forward through television programming, the consumer is becoming increasingly adept at advertising avoidance.   The reality is that most advertising messages have become uninvited guests in people’s lives.  Quite possibly, at the top of their list of unwelcome intrusions, are political ads.

This certainly has not gone unnoticed by the practitioners of political marketing.  Generally speaking, political marketers have launched  a counter attack that includes no better solution than worsening the bombardment ... we beat the viewer into submission by dramatically increasing how often they will see a spot.    If they’re going to ignore us at 750 GRPs, we’ll go to 1,200.  And if that doesn’t work, we’re going all the way to 2,000! (GRP is short for Gross Rating Point and is the sum of ratings achieved by a specific media vehicle or schedule. It represents the percentage of the target audience reached by an advertisement. If the advertisement appears more than once, the GRP figure represents the sum of each individual GRP. In the case of a TV advertisement that is aired 5 times reaching 50% of the target audience, it would have 250 GRP = 5 x 50% or GRPs = frequency x % reach.)

That’s just a start!  We will double the number of mail pieces that our target audience will be sent.  Automated phone calls, since they are really cheap, let’s do three or four a day. E-mails cost almost nothing:  Let’s fill their inbox every day.    

Is it any wonder that voters are tuning us out?

I propose that there are better ways of responding to the consumer marketing revolution we are now experiencing than trying to increase frequency of message.  It starts with a general understanding that what worked ten years ago doesn’t necessarily work now.  The viewer is smarter and has a greater understanding of when someone is trying to manipulate them.  To think we can simply show bad pictures of an opponent, add some dramatic music, and include 30 seconds of rambling negative verbiage and expect it to move numbers is simply not the case, perhaps even idiotic.  

So what needs to be done?  In a word, engagement. Advertising professionals are learning very quickly that to the typical consumer there are two kinds of marketing communications … that which they care about and see as relevant to their lives and the remaining 98%, which serve no purpose for them whatsoever.  The average consumer simply does not have the time, inclination, or energy to sift through 5,000 advertising messages every day.

Engagement implies a relationship with the user. Engagement is a two way street that has something of value for both the sender and the receiver.   It also implies a sense of purpose and need. Your advertising message may be accurate, even interesting, but the key question that must be asked regularly and answered truthfully is does the message have merit for the viewer?

A critical element of developing engagement with the voter is not limiting communication to a single medium.  It means true integration.  It also means a dialogue, rather than simply talking to (or shouting at) the voter.   And to be effective, it requires the personalization of the message to fit the medium and the target audience.  That almost never happens in political advertising.

In fact, I would argue that most media time is bought on the concept of getting the most eyeballs available at the lowest cost possible.  Or in a more sophisticated campaign, targeted rating points based on targets identified in polling data.  But rarely, if ever, does the media buy take into account the likely engagement a viewer may have with a specific program or medium.  Recent research indicates this to be a critical error.

With viewers so easily able to zip, zap, and multi-task to avoid advertising content, any opportunity to seek out viewers more likely to watch one’s ad is certainly of high importance.  A number of recent studies reveal that the content and tone of a program may outweigh in importance the number of viewers for that program.   In other words, whether a TV commercial is seen as a nuisance or as engaging information is heavily dependent on when and where it appears.

By way of example, political ads running during news content were seen as much more acceptable by viewers than advertising running during sports programming, and thus, were considered less of an intrusion.  The reaction tended to be much more positive as well.  Advertising that was more similar in tone to the specific programming was also more likely to be favorably received.  Negative ads running in comedy programming, for example, were seen as a mood breaker, with the viewer more likely to penalize the purchaser of the ad than the target of the ad.

We are in a rapidly changing marketing environment.  There are many barriers that did not exist even just a few years ago.  But the opportunities are also greater.  Like anything else in the political campaign world, those who are quick to adapt will win more often. Those who operate as though we are still in the 1960s will soon be looking for a new line of work.

John Brabender is the Chief Strategic and Creative Officer of
BrabenderCox, Inc, a Republican media firm. View
some of John’s recent work at www.brabendercox.com.
John can be reached at Click here to contact this Author

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