The Marketing Directors marketing consultancy logo

Marketing and Politics: Seven lessons from the 2020 US election

As the 2020 US Presidential election result appears final, it is now time to see what we marketers can deduce and learn from what went on. It is patently clear there is much to observe and there are also major lessons to be learned.  In the run-up to the election, the opinion polls generally showed Joe Biden a clear winner. Though in the end, while Biden swept a sizeable share of Electoral College votes (67%), he just garnered a majority share of the popular vote (51.4%) (1). Further, turnout was a record 65% (2) and both Republican and Democrat Presidential candidates won more votes than in 2016.

Marketing and politics: Joe Biden vs. Donald Trump 2020 US Presidential Election
Joe Biden and Donald Trump faced off in the 2020 US Presidential Election

1. Targeting and media selection are paramount

The US political divide largely plays out on cable television which is free from the necessity for unbiased reporting with audiences. Fox News dominates viewing with an audience nearly twice that of CNN and MSCNBC. However, Fox remains more biased toward Trump. This, of course, contributes to Trump garnering 74 million votes.

At the same time, the Democrats outspent the Republicans in advertising across the country (3). Mostly on TV, and almost to saturation level. Though the Republicans spent more on digital, mainly on Facebook and Google.

2. Timely and ‘believable’ messages gather attention

The timing and frequency of Trump’s Twitter activity (from 5 am every morning) means he set the agenda for the news media almost on a daily basis. He also embarked on series of campaign events that were covered by the media from social selfies to vox pops and sound-bites on prime-time TV.

The events of today seen through the prism of seminal pundits, Marshall McLuhan and Alvin Toffler give a fuller understanding. McLuhan asserted that ‘the medium is the message’

Toffler asserted that we would suffer from information overload and consequently reduced attention span and less residual knowledge. In turn, this increases reliance on the chosen media source.

So despite the messages, as the media was perceived to be neutral, the content was accepted and thus influenced accordingly; ‘I saw it on Fox, so it has to be right!’. This may also explain why perceptions of vote-rigging (whereby allegations were initially repeated by the media yet later dismissed) continue to linger in some minds.  

3. Local experiential activity nuanced national messaging and provided new routes to market

Despite the national media backdrop, Trump’s only real ‘surprises’ were in regions toured, and heavily influenced by PR initiatives, such as the attempted world record boat parade (in Florida).

Though the most significant activity appears to be Democratic door- knocking. Initially, the polls seemed to depict a greater margin of victory for Biden. Or did they? As the postal votes were counted the margin edged towards the predicted. These postal voters were many new and younger voters. The Democrats urged voters to vote by post to avoid the risk of coronavirus in voting personally. They also helped many to complete the paperwork.  

An interesting subplot here is that C-19 in itself was also a polarising issue. A dominant issue for Democrats, yet a subject of disdain for Trump. Also, one that was potentially undermined by Mr. Trump catching coronavirus in the latter stages of the campaign.  Perhaps this was his ultimate undoing.

4. This also suggests that to break-through in terms of messaging, more creative and credible new thoughts were needed.

5. Importance of social media

But perhaps the biggest factor which made the outcome closer than expected by most is social media activity.  Indeed, a quarter of Americans get their news from Facebook and YouTube.

We all know how much more we can target an ever-more varied number of criteria via social media platforms. For example, via media consumption, social inclination, and behavioural predisposition. 

Tick-box forms, surveys, and more allow a mass of data gathering. All under the guise of ‘protecting your privacy’ through the cleverly designed format of ‘I accept’ or ‘have read our (sic. interminable) terms and conditions here…’.

Such an easy choice, leaning to informed consent, but also boosting the marketing value of said data.

6. A vicious circle?

However, we ask at what moral cost? For now, not only are marketers offered the ability to diagnose activity, but we now see the platforms themselves are using it to influence. One could also even say condition their audience – our audience too. It seems a vicious circle …

An audience fed a diet of half-truths, conspiracy theories, and downright lies. Delivered in the conflict created attention limited, bite-sized chunks but all aimed towards ultimate audience addiction.

7. Dirty tricks or not?

If we are to believe the US Government there was no external influence. Either through targeted messages or vote manipulation via the myriad of archaic and different analogue and electronic voting systems used across the various states.

That is not to say that curious practices did not go on. In Florida, the redoubtable Republican party created and promoted fictitious and non-existent independent candidates with similar names to Democrat candidates via social and print media. Claims of election misfeasance also seem to take ‘fake news’ to a new level.

Of course, the Democrats won overall though not in Florida.

Marketing Inspiration

Whilst political intervention is simply muted, we must ask ourselves one final question.  Are we and society being out marketed ourselves?! Often with a haranguing tone and also low standards of truth and decency. Are these the required standards to achieve marketing success? Surely not…

Or are marketing and politics simply poor bed-fellows? Let us know what you think.


(1) The Associated Press.

(2) The Guardian.

(3) Wesleyan Media Project.

Further reading

New volume 2 of The Marketing Director’s Handbook – Managing digital marketing, lifts the lid on the world of digital. It brings business owners and marketers up-to-date on digital media. Also on best-practices to boost search engine, advertising, social media performance, marketing automation, and more. It is available from all good bookshops, both high street and online.

Tim is a famous marketer of the 80's and 90's who ran one of the most successful independent UK marketing agencies. he went on to help establish a leading UK search agency and become a sought after interim Marketing Director and consultant. He is co-author of The Marketing Director's Handbook Volumes 1 and 2 with Guy Tomlinson.

Leave a Reply