Welcome back to the weekly Nuts & Bolts Guide to small campaigns. Every week I try to tackle issues I’ve been asked about. With the help of other campaign workers and notes, we address how to improve and build better campaigns, or explain issues that impact our party.
In the image above, you get to see the official ice cream truck, paid for by the Democratic National Committee, designed to celebrate July 4th and show that America was back on track. It is by every definition, a gimmick. Gimmick campaigning has gone on forever. Strange one-offs or wild hair ideas that strike someone as “this could be really good” with absolutely no data behind their effectiveness. They can also ring really hollow in the face of other problems. While the DNC was serving a few ice cream cones, much of the country was suffering with record heat and drought. So, the idea of giving away a few ice creams? Well, let me just say that not a single campaign organizer I have spoken with believes that it in any way swayed even a single vote while all agreed it spent money and received almost no earned media. This week, let’s talk about why gimmicks are generally bad ideas.
Earned media matters. Gimmicks aren’t the way in.
There are two types of media appearances a candidate can receive. The first is paid media, representing any content the candidate pays for and distributes. From TV ads down to door hangers, all of these items are paid media that help generate awareness of a candidate. The second form of media is earned media. Earned media is when the press, newspapers, TV stations, radio stations, blogs, or any other service takes time to mention you without payment and provide you access to tell your story. If you want to win your election, earned media means a lot, as every bit of earned media you receive goes farther than media you can pay for, and it is received by a wider audience. Successful earned media can propel a candidate a very long way, especially if it highlights the differences between the candidates or provides you a chance to highlight specific issues in the campaign.
In order to get earned media, campaigns have tried various strategies, but one that keeps coming around and invented time and time again comes in the form of a gimmick. Running an ice cream truck is one example, but at some point in every state, you’ve seen a campaign try a gimmick just hoping to get someone to pay attention. Odds are, if anyone does remember the gimmick it is remembered as a costly mistake rather instead of a fantastic success. Getting earned media is about telling your story in a way that connects voters to you and attracts media who like to see why the voters might be attracted to you. It is not created by riding a mechanical bull—especially when you fake it, as one Republican did this year, generating negative earned media.
What is a gimmick and what is real?
What makes a gimmick in a campaign different from integrating new tools to a campaign that may help it succeed? We often see new tools come into campaigns. Over the years I’ve seen new means to cut data paths, field operations, and campaigns shift further toward tablets and phones for data retention and tracking, text messaging, glossy thinner print, digital campaign ads. What makes these a campaign tool and something else a gimmick? Where is the line?
The easiest way to know is that a campaign tool will have, even in infancy, a way to track and monitor the efficiency. By being able to build a statistical basis of how many people contacted and voter responses, you know that you are returning data to your campaign and voter contact matters. Gimmicks do not guarantee that. Before I mentioned them in this article, was anyone really familiar with the DNC ice cream truck? Or mechanical bull riding candidates? Odds are you didn’t know a thing about them. More importantly, neither of those two, an organization and a candidate, have any way of knowing how those were received by the public they are trying to win over.
Now, when it comes to advertising, someone will always say new cuts to a TV ad or a radio ad could seem like a “gimmick,” and I guess if a candidate teamed up with Schmoyoho and did an autotune campaign ad, I might wonder. Still, a creative TV or radio ad has one purpose: generate ongoing response that is trackable. At least the mechanical bull had that going for it, though the response was negative after it was found out to be fake. So, when it comes to creative content, what is a gimmick and what is real?
The best way to think of this difference was provided to me a very long time ago by Senator Tom Harkin who said to 2016 convention delegate state meetings that people can see authenticity a mile away. That idea governs how to look at campaign spending on a gimmick. If it feels phony, if it feels forced, it is a gimmick without a question. If you are spending money on it and you don’t know about the return, it is a gimmick. If you have no way to track any results, it is a gimmick.
Get attention, real attention, by being authentic, and you will find that your campaign benefits.
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