Is Hillary Clinton running one of the least effective presidential marketing campaigns ever?

Election 2016 is already like no presidential race before it, and one of the most striking aspects of this year’s race is the disparity between the amounts the two candidates are spending on advertising.

Just look at the headlines:

The conventional wisdom is that to win the White House, candidates have to spend money, and lots of it.

But despite the fact that her campaign is by all estimates vastly outspending that of her opponent, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton today finds herself in a tight race with Republican candidate Donald Trump, even in many battleground states where the Clinton campaign and its supporters have been focusing their spend.

So what gives?

The limits of advertising

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are two of the most unpopular presidential candidates in history. As of this moment, according to RealClearPolitics, 54% of voters view Clinton unfavorably. Trump fares even worse, with a 58% unfavorable rating.

In Clinton’s case, her high unfavorables probably have a lot to do with the fact that her campaign has been beset by an email scandal that won’t go away, allegations over pay-to-play and former President Bill Clinton’s Clinton Foundation, and hacked documents that seemed to show that the Democratic National Committee did everything it could to ensure she was the party’s candidate for president.

Clinton has also been in the public eye for several decades, so many voters’ impressions of her are probably well-established by now.

Overcoming long-standing opinions and the barrage of negative headlines Clinton has faced throughout the election cycle is a tall order. Even the most brilliant 15 and 30 second television ads probably aren’t enough to do it. Nor will radio ads, banner ads or any other form of advertising.


Trump’s equalizers: earned and social media

But there’s another reason Clinton’s heavy ad spending hasn’t buried Trump: the Republican candidate has been the beneficiary of a massive amount of earned media. By some estimates, the Republican candidate has received more than $4.5 billion in earned media in the past 12 months, compared to $2.5 billion for Clinton.

According to mediaQuant, in August, Trump generated nearly $510 million in earned media, while Clinton lagged far behind with just under $365 million.

That huge disparity isn’t surprising given the fact that, according to data analyst Conrad Lee, “Trump still receives the lion’s share of articles, even from publishers that are left-leaning.”

Trump also appears to have a social media advantage over Clinton even though his tweets have more than a few times been the source of controversy. Numerous analyses have found that Trump has more followers and much higher engagement than Clinton in key social channels, and has since before the general election was officially underway.

While none of this reveals which way Election 2016 will go, the final six weeks of the campaign will be very interesting. After all, Trump plans to up his spending on paid television and digital ads considerably, which he can do at will. On the other hand, there’s little evidence that Clinton will close the earned and social media gap in just a few short weeks.

So unless Clinton’s advertising becomes a lot more effective, or there’s an October Surprise that sends the Trump campaign reeling, the final days of Election 2016 could be some of the most interesting in history.

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