A Guide to Ad Strategy during Election Season
Synopsis: How brands can remain authentic and stop the spread of misinformation in the wake of election season.
The countdown to midterm elections has begun, with political candidates making their final arguments before November 8th. The election result will shape the rest of Biden’s term as voters decide which party will control Congress. Because these outcomes are so consequential, the American media landscape is already swarming with political ads hoping to sway voters’ minds. According to AdImpact, a nonpartisan ad tracker, the midterm elections will witness their most expensive year ever as more than $6.4 billion are going into TV, radio, and digital ads for House, Senate, and local races.
It can seem disheartening for brands as they not only have to vie for consumers' attention with competitor brands, but also with persistent and intense political campaigns. But fear not; political campaigns may be less impactful on consumers' perception of brands. Ipso's "Politicians in Ad Land" report found that 78% of consumers surveyed said that the political ads had no impact on how they received brand ads.
Yet, this doesn't mean marketers should run their typical ad creative during elections. Although political campaigns don't influence most viewers, some ads perform better than others. Political campaigns with a negative tone are more likely to cut through the chaos. Why? Because they work. Business Marketing Professor David Schweidel said throughout his research, "negative campaign ads, specifically the ads that are from the candidates themselves, not some 'anonymous org,' those are the ads that we tend to remember, those are the ones that move the needles."
For brands to be strategic, they need to stand out in more ways than one. A contrasting positive tone will always attract attention in a media sea full of negativity. The same Ipsos report found that ad style does matter. Uplifting and positive creatives stood out from the darker political media terrain by 7%. Conversely, the sales-focused ads saw a 13% decline in branded impressions.
Purpose campaigns have been statistically successful in driving results, but only if it aligns with your brand values and won't throw consumers off. As long as brands remain authentic, it could be a notable strategy for increasing brand loyalty. According to an article for Morning Consult report, a growing share of Americans feel corporations should use their influence to impact important issues. In January 2021, brands broke their silence worldwide following the attacks on Capitol Hill.
Ben & Jerry's, a reputation for progressive values, took to Twitter in an 8-part tweet condemning the acts that took place and calling to impeach Trump. In an interview with Matthew McCarthy, Ben & Jerry's CEO, he responded to why speaking out was the right choice for the ice cream company. "We're seeing strong growth, and we've got some good data showing that our fans are aware of our social mission activities, which makes them more supportive of our business and vocal about it. Some of them buy more ice cream as a result. They don't have to. That's why we call them fans, not consumers."
But speaking out is not without risk. Before election day, a number of brands attempted to address the polarized partisanship with messages promoting civility. Oreo launched a campaign showing a donkey and an elephant sharing black and white cookies with a glass of milk at the fair. Fast Company stated the ad “comes off as the brand’s very own Pepsi/Kendall Jenner moment, an insulting oversimplification, cutesified to sell more cookies.” In a highly polarized partisan country, any social or political statement comes with a risk of alienating a large group of consumers or coming across as ‘woke-washing.’
So, how can brands prepare to respond to future challenges? Anita Schillhorn of McKinney has the answer. “Brands must also be more proactive about their brand safety in paid media; direct media buys allow for more control than programmatic buys. Brands can also demand more accountability from programmatic services.” With this strategy, marketers can prevent the monetization and spread of misinformation by having control of where their ads are placed. It isn’t a direct response to political and social issues but still allows marketers to use their monetary power for the good of their consumers and brand image.
In a highly volatile political and social landscape, brands need to adjust their campaign strategy to reflect and best fit into the divided social climate. Marketers have an opportunity to use their voice, whether that be direct or subtle. For most consumers, the role companies play in specific issues is a massive part in whether or not they partake in their goods and services. As the spread of misinformation continues, brands at least have the choice to limit deception and support democracy.