How to make your political opponent look bad in TV ads: A step-by-step guide

Since I’m guessing you loathe television political ads as much as I do, let’s turn it into a game; how many of the TV political ads that you see follow this formula?

A black and white old television set. On the screen are found young people gathered around a TV themselves
“not everything has a reason” by Robert Couse-Baker is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Since I’m guessing you loathe television political ads as much as I do, let’s turn it into a game; how many of the TV political ads that you see follow this formula?

(written with sarcasm, but really, see how many actually fit this)

Step 1: Obtain footage of your opponent, preferably with them alone. Bonus points if it shows them walking away from people.

Step 2: Change the footage of your opponent from color to black and white.

Step 3: Add daunting music, as similar to the Jaws movie theme without being obvious. Also, you don’t want to distract your audience by having them think “I really want to watch Jaws now, that movie is awesome.”

Step 4: Contrast the black and white footage you’ve just showed with testimonials from senior citizens, veterans, and working-class people talking about how that candidate just “isn’t right for us,” but your candidate is. Bonus points for each time one of them says “trust” with your candidate.

Step 5: Show video of your candidate walking into a room, waving, while a very large group stands and claps like they’ve each just won a million dollars. Make sure the music is upbeat and hopeful-sounding.

Step 6: Show your candidate having one-on-one conversations with senior citizens, veterans, and working-class people. Bonus points for small children, especially babies.

Step 7: Show your candidate looking directly into the camera, saying how much he or she will “work for you.”

Step 8: End with the obligatory stuff. “I’m x candidate and I approve this message” and “This ad was paid for by x committee that sounds like it has nothing to do with politics.”

And, cut.

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Implementing change series: Combine active and passive strategies for high-impact results

Implementing a new project, cultural change, movement, etc. is never easy. But one thing that can make it easier is to define each of your strategies as either active or passive.

Dog actively chasing a ball
“photomarathon15” by Delphine Savat, via Flickr Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Implementing a new project, cultural change, movement, etc. is never easy.  But one thing that can make it easier is to define each of your strategies as either active or passive.

Passive vs. Active Strategy

Most of us are familiar with the line from the movie Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.” This is the classic example of a passive strategy; they build the place for people to enjoy, but they make no effort to encourage people to come. The idea is, if it’s there and people want it, they will find it. While it makes for an inspiring movie, it’s only partially true when it comes to implementing change with results. These types of passive, or indirect strategies, do help support the overall strategy, but they must be mixed with active strategies as well.

An active strategy is much more direct; if you do this action, you can expect a specific result related to your goal directly from that action. For example, in a business, if your goal is to increase sales, branding marketing (image ads, corporate sponsorships of community causes) would be passive to making a sale, while sales representatives asking for purchase, coupons, special sales offers etc. are direct/active strategies.

Examples: Politics and OER

One example that I think can hit home for everyone right now is politics. Instinctively, we all know that complaining about politics or debating with our contacts on social media isn’t going to lead directly to change. We may change a mind, eventually, but that isn’t going to solve the larger issues.

  • Holding a demonstration or protest: Most people would think that this is active, but, since it usually won’t lead to changing someone’s mind or changing an outcome, it’s passive
  • Calling your elected representatives and asking them to vote a specific way on a bill: Active
  • Venting on Facebook: Passive
  • Donating to an organization who will directly go and advocate for change: Passive for you, but active in the sense that you are financially supporting someone else to directly ask for change (which you may not be able to do on your own)

In my work for Rice University’s OpenStax, I consult with colleges and universities to encourage faculty to transition to Open Educational Resources (OER), including free textbooks. As part of this process, each school writes a strategic plan that includes specific strategies they will complete to encourage faculty to adopt. 

The question I always ask them is: Does this strategy involve you directly asking faculty to adopt an OER? If the answer is yes, then you have a active/direct strategy, if the answer is no, then you have a passive strategy.

  • Having a display of OER textbooks on the campus. The faculty will see them and look at them and consider adopting them: Passive
  • Going to a faculty member’s office and asking them to pilot an OER:  Active
  • Hosting a faculty panel discussion about OER: Passive
  • Having a sign-in sheet at the above panel and following-up with each attendee afterward individually to ask them to adopt an OER: Active
  • Offering grants in exchange for adoption: Active

Combining Passive and Active Strategies for Results

The key is not to eliminate passive strategies, the goal is to mix both passive and active strategies in a way that creates momentum.

For example, this blog post is a passive strategy, but if I send it to people so they know the difference between the two types of strategies and then use that to help them incorporate both into a strategic plan, that creates momentum. If the protest/demonstration you hold drives PR and traffic to your website, you can use that traffic to ask them to sign-up for more information, sign a petition, etc. thus turning that passive strategy into a way for you to move forward with more resources and support.

The most important thing is that you identify and consider your combination of passive and active strategies and plan for effective results.

Millenials want straight-shooting authenticity

Whether or not they view an organization as authentic may have greater value than if they like your product, service, or benefits.

Three circles. First circle says "Branding is what you are." Second circle says "Marketing is What you do." Third circle says "Selling is what you say." The three circles intersect and where they do is the word "authenticity"
“How do you truly #influence customers?” by Walter Lim, Flickr Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 4.0

It’s no secret that Joe Biden is popular among Millenials and I’ve long-argued that the reason behind this is simple: Whether you love him or hate him, you know who he is (or think you do anyway) and that authenticity is something that the Millenials, those who grew  up in a world of questionable information and characters, are attracted to.

With this in mind, it’s not surprising that the Millenials are more supporting of Donald Trump than the Republican candidate closest to them in age and political stance, Marco Rubio.

According to USA Today:

What seems to be attracting younger people so far this campaign season are not policy positions or attack ads but “softer attributes” such as leadership, character, authenticity and celebrity, said John Della Volpe, director of polling at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, which has done extensive research on the attitudes of young voters.

It helps to explain why someone from an older generation – like blunt-spoken, universally known businessman Donald Trump, 69, – often appeal to the younger set., he said.

And why Millenials tend to favor Bernie Sanders.

At the same time, Millenials don’t tend to vote, which means, popular with them or not, the current set of candidates may be better off appealing to a broader voter base, who don’t always favor blunt, straight-shooting talk.

But this may change it the future. And, this tells us a lot as marketers about how, if we are targeting to Millenials now, we may want to approach them. Whether or not they view an organization as authentic may have greater value than if they like your product, service, or benefits.

Don’t trust the crowd, it’s most likely hired/manipulated

The point of adding this to the film (in my opinion) is, “Look at the political corruption and manipulation! Isn’t it shocking?”

But the reality is, this is now happening regularly in the United States as well.

A large group of people rallying
“Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” by Cliff, via Flickr Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 2.0

During the documentary “The Act of Killing” about the horrors that took place in Indonesia, one of the subjects of the film decides to run for office. He goes around handing-out business cards and the people respond with renditions of “that’s it?” because they are so used to being bribed with more. They also make a point to talk about how the political rallies are filled with paid people. The point of adding this to the film (in my opinion) is, “Look at the political corruption and manipulation! Isn’t it shocking?”

But the reality is, this is now happening regularly in the United States as well.

  • Political campaigns hire fake crowds
  • The Pentagon has been paying sports teams for patriotism
  • Photography is regularly used to make crowds seem larger than they are
  • Colleges and other organizations utilize rent-a-crowds too
  • Television shows (I know this from personal experience) sort audience members to ensure the people sitting closest to the actors are diverse and meet the demographic they want to watch the show.
  • Some people argue that police may be using riot gear to make a crowd look more violent than it is.
  • A couple of years ago, I went to a talk by a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Myself and two young men were escorted to the very front row. After we were seated, one of the young men looked at the crowd, mostly age 50+ and said to me something like “I don’t think we should be in the front row. I’d prefer some of these older folks get a better view.” I told him, while I agreed with him, we were seated there intentionally. They wanted us within camera shots to show that the younger generation was there, even if the reality was, there were only three of us out of 350.

Why is this happening?

For this, I turn to Social Norms Theory. People go along with what the social norm is, and crowds often signal social approval. Think about this as an illustration: You and a friend are walking to a concert. You’re positive you know the way to the concert. But you keep seeing tons of people, who also seem to be going to the concert walking the opposite way. What do you do? At the very least, you start to second-guess yourself. And, most likely, you will determine the crowd is most likely right, you’ve mistaken, and turn and follow them.

How do you combat this?

The best response is identification; whenever you see a crowd, just assume that it’s manipulated in some way. If it helps, do a quick mental exercise, using the examples above and others, to think through what possible ways the crowd could be manipulated to serve a purpose. This will keep you from thinking the crowd is the norm and falling into the subconscious social norms patterns of thinking the crowd is right.

It’s time for a radical change in strategy

It’s time for a radical change in strategy. Yelling the same messages louder and keeping your product mostly the same isn’t working. For radical change to happen, you have to radically change your strategy.

A group of people in suits sitting before microphones waiting in turn to speak
“Debate 10.4.12” by Southern Arkansas University, via Flickr Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Imagine you are a marketer and a business comes to you for advice.

This business has been in a competitive struggle for years with another business. Neither is gaining significant market share against the other. They seem locked in a war neither can win.

You look at their product and their promotion strategy, as well as that of their competitor, and you find that neither has made significant product changes or messaging changes in years. But, they both continually increase their ad spending year after year. This all keeps their consumer bases happy and loyal, but isn’t changing their market share positions.

What would most marketers tell the business at this point?

For radical change to happen, you have to radically change your strategy. It’s time for a new approach.

I’m looking at you, special interest groups seemingly locked-in an endless battle with one another. As a citizen, I value your advocacy on both sides as a means of finding balance for our society. But if I was your marketer, I’d be making a strong case for radical change. Yelling the same things, only louder, no longer works.

Do we sometimes think something is a riot when it really isn’t? Can riot gear be used as a PR framing tactic?

Working at colleges the last 6 years has greatly expanded my knowledge and awareness of what I would deem “social commentary t-shirts.

One that read “When you’re in riot gear everything looks like a riot” (I found it online here)  my attention the other day and made me think.  I have a lot of respect for American police and American military, but I don’t know much about similar institutions across the world.

This t-shirt made me wonder:  Have other governments in other parts of the world used riot gear as a public relations framing tactic to make things look worse than they really are? What other ways could governments use visual representations (good or bad) to frame a message?

A PR lesson from watching our political candidates: Think twice about people in the background

This morning, the front page of the Battle Creek Enquirer showed a picture of Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, during a campaign stop in Albion, Michigan. The photo of Romney included several people standing behind him and one of those people, standing to his right, was a guy who was busy checking his phone. There are probably good reasons that he might have been looking at his phone and we all know a camera only catches an instance, but it still looks bad. The guy is cropped out of the photo on the online version of the story, but the other people who aren’t cropped out of the photo aren’t much better. They don’t look happy to be there at all.

The photo reminded me of a similar incident in 2010 when President Barack Obama was speaking at Kalamazoo Central High School’s commencement ceremony and there was a student that fell asleep behind him.

Having people stationed behind the candidates communicates a lot for them and usually it’s positive. It shows that they are with the people they are wanting to represent, it shows that they are out meeting people, it shows that people are supporting them, and it gives the ambiance of a large crowd in a single camera shot. But, the two instances should also sever as a PR lesson and precaution to communications professionals on the risks of asking people to stand with or behind someone giving a speech. It may or may deliver the effect that we are looking for.