The End of the TV-Centric Era

It’s not often that you know the exact start and the exact end of an era. For example, the best we can guess for the start of the Pleistocene Era is about 2.5 million years ago (it ended about 12,000 years ago). No one ever rang a bell and said, “The Pleistocene Era has now begun!” and there was no final curtain followed by raucous applause (although humans did evolve to their current form during this era, so I suppose there was in fact an audience). The same can be said of other eras through history: the Renaissance, the Age of Enlightenment, the Golden Age of Television, and post-funk/punk to name a few.

It is therefore even more remarkable that we saw the definitive end – preceded by the definitive beginning – of the TV-Centric Era for Presidential Campaigns. The era began on September 26, 1960 and ended Tuesday, November 6, 2012 (at about 11:30 p.m. EST). Fifty-two years, one month, and 41 days is not a bad run.

The beginning was the Nixon-Kennedy debate. It was the first presidential debate that was aired live on television. The stories around this debate are legendary: Nixon looked pale and tired. Evidently, his mother called him after the debate and asked if he was sick. Kennedy looked tan and composed. He appeared confident and relaxed and self-assured. He looked presidential. Those listening on the radio thought that Nixon had won the debate. Those watching on television overwhelming felt Kennedy won. A few months later, Kennedy won the presidency, capturing 303 electoral votes to Nixon’s 219.

Kennedy (tragically) lasted only three years in office. Television has had a much longer shelf life. The critical importance and centricity of television in electing a president became doctrine, reaching a fever pitch sometime between “Morning Again in America” and “Willie Horton.”

This year, though, things seemed a bit different. It depends on how you calculate it, but, essentially, the Republican ticket outspent the Democratic ticket on television advertising. This is mostly due to a wildcard thrown into the 2012 election, enabling companies and individuals an unprecedented ability to spend money on campaigns. But we all know the outcome: Obama won 332 electoral votes and Romney won 206.

Was It the Data?

One of the big stories coming out of Obama’s campaign, as they lift the curtain and show off their infrastructure, is that they were remarkably good at what has been called the “ground game.” This is a focus on individual voters and the communities they exist inside. It has become clear that, while the Obama campaign hewed close to a few key messages, there was no single, monolithic approach broadcast out to everyone.

Instead, the campaign brought together a massive amount of information about people – what they were concerned about and what messages resonated – and used that to motivate people to take actions. Contrast this to the amazing advertising work done by Hal Riney for Ronald Reagan’s re-election. If you haven’t seen (or need a quick reminder) of how great “Morning Again in America” was (as an ad, mind you; not talking policy here), take another look. This was the height of the broadcast message era, both in politics and in marketing in general. This ad has a perfectly crafted message (things are better), supported by a clear reason to believe (all that data), and a specific choice (do you want to go back to the bad times?). It also uses a lot of highly emotional images and music, making it just about perfect, and you could argue that this ad won Reagan four more years.

There was no real “Morning Again in America” spot this time around. While there were big messages (e.g., raise taxes on top earners), they were more invitations to engage rather than the whole argument to act. This is the big lesson that marketers need to learn from the election: use broadcast mediums as sparks of conversation; use social/digital/interactive mediums to fan that spark into the flame of action.

“The Flame of Action” – Are You Serious?

OK, maybe that phrase is a bit of a reach. But I do think that marketers are increasingly getting this idea and they are using it very much to their advantage. Nike has long believed that, while its big, anthemic “Just Do It” spots are effective at getting people excited, it really wins at the category level. It engages directly inside communities of athletes around the sports that matter most to them. The Nike Women’s Marathon that was recently held here in San Francisco is a great example of that. The “Just Do It” message is translated through the lenses of running and women to create a real bond and a connection and a relationship.

This is truly an integrated marketing approach. When you think integrated, you shouldn’t think simply that all mediums need to be doing the same (or similar) things. You should think that each medium should do what it’s best at. We still see too many brands that are using social just to get messages out, when they should be using it engage with people. We see too many ads that exist out in an island, not connected to any other communications.

And mostly, we see too much data about consumers and what they want and what they believe is just sitting around either not being looked at or (worse) not being used because it is too disorganized.

If we, as marketers (only), can get motivated by what has happened with the Obama election win, it’s to get motivated to up our ground game with consumers. If you’re selling anything – especially anything where the decision is big (like buying a car) – you need to think very clearly about how you’re integrating the big, emotional, and motivating messages of broadcast with the direct engagement that you need with people to complete the transaction.

(BTW: my intention with this column is to stay totally non-partisan. I did some editing and took out anything that would skew me one way or another and let us just talk about the way the election was won from a communications point of view. I hope that you will be able to read this in the same spirit, but I am always open to discussions of any kind, either below or on Twitter.)

Static TV image on home page via Shutterstock.

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