Political marketing lessons from Obama’s successful election

Published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, November 14, 2008

LOCAL CANDIDATES AND THEIR IMAGE MAKERS have a thing or two to learn from the just concluded 2008 presidential White House race. These include:

Having an intrusive yet relevant, clear and concise message. Barack Obama’s single unifying message was change. It may initially sound generic but Obama took pains to elaborate this single message to cover a number of relevant issues including the sensitive US economy. Some of the specific messages include advocating a second stimulus package to jumpstart the economy with another round of tax rebates and infrastructure funding; retooling and technology assistance for the US automotive industry, removing tax breaks for US firms that outsource jobs overseas, among others. Some of Obama’s change policies may not sit well with certain groups, yet the message remains transparent.

Reduced gimmickry. Obama’s campaign was nearly devoid of unwarranted mudslinging and name-calling so common to local political campaigns and generally intended to call media attention to the candidate. Throughout the election campaign, the US president-elect remained focused on the issues at hand, not surprisingly winning all three presidential debates with civility, equanimity and humility.

The Learnings:

* Have an intrusive yet relevant, clear and concise message.
* Reduce gimmickry.
* Get the message across.
* Have heartwarming images.
* Be credible.
* Use celebrities to deliver the message

Getting the message across. President-elect Barack Obama spent twice as much as McCain on media at $240M versus $116M (Source: Federal Election Commission). Obama aired a 30-minute ad feature ran simultaneously on NBC, Fox, CBS, BET, TV One, etc. clarifying and covering quite a number of issues primarily directed at an electorate he has not reached personally. Media was used substantively and extensively across the campaign period to communicate Obama’s stand on a number of issues including unemployment, recession, climate change, stem cell research, oil and gas drilling, etc., not stopping at mere slogans, kissing baby photos or jingles, despite having one.

Heartwarming images. It has been a while since a much younger family has occupied the White House. Casual images of Barack with accomplished wife, Michelle and their daughters, Sasha and Malia in endearing photos have engaged even the skeptic and cynical non-voters. The recent US election has attracted the most number of new voters among the youth.

Resolute credibility. Gag artists and stand-up comics have a heyday with current-president George W. Bush’s gaffes. Not so, with new president-elect Obama, always poised, refined, often with measured and calculated responses commanding respect from the electorate. Seemingly, the contrast between the present and soon to be US president gives life to advertising icon David Ogilvy’s words of wisdom that no amount of good advertising can sell a bad product. Legendary advertising man, William Bernbach, founder of Doyle Dane Bernbach likewise declares, Advertising doesn’t create a product advantage, it can only convey it.

Use of celebrity endorsers secondary to campaign. Obama’s electoral campaign did not rely on celebrity endorsements to create word of mouth advertising. While it helped that Oprah Winfrey including former president Bill Clinton and a number of business moguls and artists lobbied for Obama, they were used as mouthpieces for issues and policies he supported and represented. Celebrities were used mainly as mediums for substantive messaging.

The Filipino electorate will be happy if the presidential elections in 2010 will have more intelligent discussions. But it takes two to tango. The presidentiables should take a cue from the recently concluded US presidential election.