As Manhattan commuters approached the George Washington Bridge on the morning after this year’s US presidential election, they couldn’t help but notice the Time magazine billboard overhead. In the months leading up to the election, a pendulum had been swinging in front of the hoarding, moving steadily between two giant images of George Bush and John Kerry. Now, after a seemingly endless campaign season, the pendulum had finally stopped – fixing over the features of a newly re-elected George W Bush. According to a TNS Media Intelligence/CMR study, approximately $1.4bn (&£740m) was spent on political advertising in the US in 2004, creating a presidential contest that no one could ignore, whether they were sitting in traffic under a billboard in Manhattan, watching television in Idaho or going online in California.
There is little doubt that this year’s election was the most expensive marketing campaign the US has ever seen. The final bill for all the 2004 races could be as high as $4bn (&£2.1bn), versus $3bn (&£1.6bn) in 2000. The total amount spent on the presidential election alone is estimated by the Center for Responsive Politics to have been over $1.2bn (&£630m), of which almost $700m (&£370m) was raised through public funding and direct “hard money” donations to the candidates, with $360m (&£190m) going to into Bush’s campaign coffers and Kerry raising $318m (&£168m). Owing to changes in campaign financing laws in the intervening period, it is hard to quantify exactly how much was spent in total on the 2000 presidential campaign but a comparative figure for the total receipts and public funding received by the candidates is put at $529m (&£279m) by the CRP.
From a marketing perspective, one of the most fascinating elements in the Bush-Kerry showdown lay in the new methods used by both campaigns to reach a wider audience. Republicans in particular embraced modern communications methods out in the field. Never seen without a Blackberry or Palm in his hand, Karl Rove, the principal architect of the Bush marketing juggernaut, geared up his precinct captains with an array of wireless gadgetry that allowed him constantly to monitor the mood and likely behaviour of voters on the ground around the country.
In 2000, Democracy Online director Michael Cornfield called the internet a mere “footnote” in the election season. Neither Bush nor Gore even mentioned their websites during the debates and convention speeches they took part in. In sharp contrast, this year there were regular mentions of their website addresses from both Bush and Kerry. Though direct mailings, $1,000 dinners and traditional meet-and-greet events continued to be critical sources of finance for all candidates, this year’s election saw the political world wake up to the power of the internet as a fundraising and marketing tool.
The increasing role of the Web in the race for the presidency was partly driven by the efforts of former Democratic contender Howard Dean. Dean was the first candidate to utilise the Web as a central tenet in his campaign strategy. Grassroots networking through targeted Web pages, meetings, e-mailing and blogging helped to spread the former Governor’s message and raise millions of dollars ($15.4m (&£8.1m) in the final three months of 2003 alone). Though Dean’s challenge was waning by the time of the Democratic primaries, rivals both inside and outside the party took note of the scale of his online achievements, eager to have a piece of the pie for themselves.
While Bush campaign officials have been unwilling to state how much was raised through online donations, we know that the Kerry campaign raised more than $80m (&£42.2m) of $233.5m (&£123.3m) from 500,000 online donors. In 2004, the internet definitely confirmed its status as a vital resource for politicians to raise money, communicate their messages and build support for a campaign. After the opening presidential debate on September 30, for instance, the Democratic National Committee dropped what Wired magazine called “a $400,000 [&£210,000] media bomb” on the online market, advertising on more than 50 sites. The results were impressive – a five per cent click-through rate and $4m (&£2.1m) collected in just one day.
Considering the sums of money the Net has begun to generate for many of the parties involved, there was a significant mismatch between the amount raised online and the amount spent on online advertising. Of the $1.4bn (&£740m) spent on the campaign, 87 per cent went on television, five per cent on radio, 4.8 per cent on print advertising and just 0.5 per cent on the internet. But as people increasingly turn to the internet for political coverage and content, the likelihood is that online political advertising will continue to grow rapidly. USA Today reported that the proportion of Americans who cited the internet as a main source of campaign news rose from three per cent in the 1996 election to 11 per cent in 2000 and 21 per cent in 2004, with 41 per cent getting some campaign news online. BBC Online research, meanwhile, showed that 31 per cent of broadband users stated the internet was their primary source for campaign news.
While the 2004 election was the most highly organised and technologically sophisticated marketing campaign in US politics to date, the marketing message that won people over was remarkably simple. Team Bush stayed relentlessly on message, delivering the same lines and policy positions to voters over and over again: they never wavered or changed tack. The Bush brand position was made exceptionally clear and many people placed great value on this. “I feel comfortable with Bush because he’s predictable,” one Michigan resident told Business Week, while an article in The Chicago Tribune remarked that “If President George Bush were a car, he would be a Hummer or a Ford truck, vehicles known for toughness. If Sen. John Kerry were a car… it isn’t easy to visualise what he would be.” This highlights the fact that there was definitely a positioning problem with the Kerry brand – many people just did not know what it stood for.
Even star power couldn’t help Kerry beat Bush’s winning formula of consistently hammering home simple messages. While Bush had to make do with support from Governor Schwarzenegger and a retinue of B-list players such as Bo Derek and Ron Silver, Kerry counted Bruce Springsteen, Leonardo di Caprio and Matt Damon among his allies. In the end, though, no amount of celebrity endorsement or technologically sophisticated marketing could defeat the brutally simplistic proposition that was Bush-Cheney ’04. With George W at the helm, the American public knew exactly what they were getting, warts and all. And millions of people exposed to millions of dollars worth of marketing clearly decided they would rather live with a few warts than take a walk into the unknown.
Polly Devaney is a former Unilever executive now working as a freelance business editor