In US elections the medium is indeed the message

‘The medium is the message’ is to say that the social outcomes of any media result from the new spirit that is introduced into our lives by new technology. This is a paraphrased quote by Marshall McLuhan, the famous Canadian philosopher of communication theory. In it he captured the changes in communication brought about by media developments and social dynamics through time, from the dawn of advertising when print ruled the day, until today where the web takes precedence.

The main features of print media was the written word, and indeed when David Ogilvy wrote his tome on advertising, he focused on long copy formats which research showed had the greatest impact. When the wireless radio receiver became popular it used the power of the spoken word and sound, which changed the nature of content and marketing communications dramatically. Televisions popularity grew tremendously after the second world war, and with audio visual communication came possibly the biggest advancements in advertising that are still a factor in today’s world. We’ve predicted the death of the 30 second TV spot for over 4 decades, and needless to say it is still going strong with a record breaking $4.5 million paid for a Super Bowl ad, on average, in 2105.

The first televised US presidential election debate occurred in 1960 and this changed the nature for presidential debates forever. Indeed the format is now popular around the world and it receives very high viewer ratings because it is a major factor in the political process. It was clear from those debates that Senator Kennedy had a sophisticated approach to television, an easy manner and a star appeal in his delivery and presentation. In contrast, Vice President Nixon’s weak points were magnified on screen and he is remembered for his uncomfortable sweating and nervous twitching, rather than the content of his speech. I also observed the ‘long copy’ remnants from the print media as both candidates were allowed to make uninterrupted statements for 15 minutes at a go. Today I observe that the debates are a collection of sound bites that are feverishly repeated through short clips in news bulletins, talk shows, YouTube and Facebook videos.

In 1976 a relatively unknown governor from Georgia, Jimmy Carter, won the US presidential elections over the incumbent, President Gerald Ford. This was at a time when the telephone subscription rates in the US reached 90% and Carter’s campaign team was the first to effectively use ‘robocalls’ to promote their candidate. A robocall, in telemarketing, is a phone call that uses a computerised autodialer to reach the masses and deliver a pre-recorded message. Because the telephone allowed for near universal reach, the technology proved to be an effective presidential candidate promotion tool that caused awe and talkability as it was impressive at the time.

In recent years President Obama’s election campaigns have been the study of many in advertising and marketing because of his teams ability to use social media for promotion and fundraising. Their approach leveraged on the fact that internet access and social networking had become universal, but also on the excitement created by the media itself, and through a well thought out and simple voter engagement strategy, they were able to capture attention and win elections over strong opponents.

‘Content is king’ is the popular catchphrase used in media circles and it focuses on distributing material that will attract high audience ratings. The highest rated programs on TV are Sports, Reality Shows and TV Series, which engage audiences simply through drama and suspense. People watch to see teams battle on the field, or an eager musician ejected from a show, a budding entrepreneur told ‘you’re fired’, or an adventurer getting stung by a jellyfish and fighting for his life. Donald Trump has intimate experience with reality shows and it appears that he is using this experience to keep voters riveted. He has developed an on-screen persona and content generation technique that delivers great television in the following ways. It is unique as far as presidential campaigns go, and is not easily replicable (by his opponents at least); it is unpredictable and full of suspense and you never know what he’ll say next, as opposed to the carefully crafted scripts of his rivals; it is combative and he’s ready to pick a fight without a second thought, which leverages on our love of sport, drama and suspense. The result of his campaigns ability to generate high audience ratings has handed him the GOP nomination for the presidential race and will certainly continue to be a factor as he faces Hillary Clinton in the final round.

Technological advancements have direct impact on the effectiveness of our advertising and as a result we have become more efficient at reaching our target audiences. Those election teams that embrace new media and the changing content consumption patterns tend to be the teams that deliver victory for their candidates in the long run.


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