With the presidential election in full swing, Americans are focused on deciding who will get their vote. Certainly, the issues remain an important part of political campaigns. However, a candidate’s image also plays a significant role. Voters must be able to envision a candidate as president of the United States.

That is where political marketing strategy comes in. Merriam-Webster defines marketing as the activities involved in making people aware of a product. In politics, the product is the candidate. Presidential campaigns use huge staffs of marketing experts who work to spread effective messaging widely. Marketing and politics go hand in hand.

A Brief History of Marketing and Politics

Politicians have always used techniques to court the support of the masses. From Roman emperors holding gladiator fights to European monarchs building city improvements, leaders seeking to gain the favor of the people is not anything new. But because America was established as a democracy, the political game changed. Voters had the ability to support candidates they liked.

Early Political Campaigns

The earliest American elections featured notorious negative tactics. According to a history of political ad campaigns by KCET, candidates were mudslinging as early as 1800. Thomas Jefferson’s supporters were constantly spreading the word that opponent John Adams was a monarchist. In return, Adams’ people called Jefferson an atheist.

Candidates regularly spread lies about each other throughout the 1800s, when most campaigning took place in person and in rudimentary periodicals. Back then, political parties created inflammatory chants to shout at campaign events. Even then, the odds of a campaign staying positive were little to none.

The Effect of Radio and TV

Up until the birth of radio, the majority of voters didn’t hear candidates speak. “You could seek out a message … in a newspaper,” Republican strategist Gary Teal explains, but a candidate “couldn’t reach you proactively.” Radio gave the general public a better understanding of who candidates were, just by hearing them. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s radio fireside chats helped Americans get to know him better than any president before.

Television had an even bigger effect. The famous Kennedy-Nixon debate was the first to be nationally televised. Teal explains that radio listeners called the debate for Richard Nixon. However, everyone who saw Nixon struggling and sweating on television thought he was toast compared to the handsome John F. Kennedy. This debate was one of the biggest moments leading up to Kennedy winning the election.

As television began to become ubiquitous, so did the type of political advertisements.

Television and radio, of course, allowed for more than just seeing and hearing the candidates. The broadcast media offered a spot for unique messaging. Dwight Eisenhower’s “They Like Ike” song was played on the radio regularly and became one of the most memorable political advertising campaigns in history. As television began to become ubiquitous, so did the type of political advertisements.

Common Political Marketing Practices

Today, political campaigns follow pretty much the same set of plays to reach the largest amount of people. Here are some of the most commonly used political marketing strategies.

Television Ads

Advertising on television is a major component of political campaigns. According to The Washington Post, $896 million was spent in the 2012 presidential election on TV ads by the campaigns for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. The majority of these buys were for negative ads. While most of the ads were purchased in key battleground states, they also spread across the country.

2016 campaigns in federal races will spend a total of $4.4 billion on TV ads.

This year’s election is no different, with NPR predicting that 2016 campaigns in federal races will spend a total of $4.4 billion on TV ads. The cascade of TV ads appear during the primaries as well as the general election. Leading up to the New Hampshire primary, about 25 percent of commercial time on some stations in the state consisted of presidential campaign ads, The New York Times reports.

Negative Marketing

As mentioned, negative campaigning remains a huge part of political campaigns. More than 80 percent of both Obama’s and Romney’s presidential campaign ads were negative. Campaigns use negative ads to attack an opponent. To some, negative campaign ads can seem dirty and unsportsmanlike, but they traditionally work. Some well-executed negative campaigns (for example, the Swift Boat Vets against 2004 candidate John Kerry) can have a massive impact on an election.

Direct Mailing

Despite today’s campaigns having a substantial presence online and on social media, they continue to use time-tested strategies like direct mailing. Still effective with older voters, direct mailings and fliers were the second highest cost (behind TV ads) to the 2012 presidential campaigns, according to The Washington Post.

This practice, which goes back as far as 1972, helps candidates reach voters who aren’t tuned into television or browsing the Internet. Republican candidates are more likely to use direct mailing due to its effectiveness among seniors. Mailings can help candidates lay out messaging and platforms in a more concrete way.

Digital Marketing and Politics

Clearly, the Internet has altered political campaigns and marketing. Now campaigns have to maintain a digital presence for their candidate, and they have many new channels to distribute messaging as well as communicate with voters.

Both of Obama’s presidential campaigns are considered master classes in digital marketing in an election. He used the Internet in a way that had not been done before and was able to reach previously unengaged voting blocs.

Public Outreach

The Internet offers easy and efficient methods to reach the general public quickly. This especially comes in handy with fundraising and grassroots organizing. Information about supporters can be found online, helping political campaigns engage volunteers and solicit donations.

Obama’s commitment to digital outreach fueled an extensive grassroots campaign that used the Internet to organize, even in places where there was little campaign presence. Supporters called voters from their personal computers. They revolutionized email campaigning and came up with the “click to donate” button.

Digital Branding

The Internet also provides unique ways for candidates to develop their personal brand and platform. Websites allow for in-depth descriptions of views and issues. Social media offers an easy way to share content for wide distribution. With so many opportunities to spread the word, candidates can build a brand voters will identify with.

In 2008, Obama was able to create a digital brand based upon his message of change. This simple message and his narrative of being a political outsider truly resonated with the general public. Obama used digital media to share the story on his own terms and reached voters who were previously unengaged. Obama registered massive numbers among young and minority voters.

Social Media

The emergence of social media has helped candidates not only reach more people, but also target them more specifically. Social media marketing allows candidates to spread their messages both broadly and quickly. It also offers the ability to develop extremely targeted advertising and messaging. Ads can be tailored to groups by age, location and other demographics. This can go a long way for efficient social campaign teams.

By the end of his second campaign, Obama’s Facebook page had 34 million fans … Ninety-eight percent of American Facebook users were friends with an Obama fan.

By the end of his second campaign, Obama’s Facebook page had 34 million fans, according to Mashable. Ninety-eight percent of American Facebook users were friends with an Obama fan. He also had 24 million Twitter followers, and his victory photo was his most retweeted tweet ever. Obama’s social team targeted the 18-29-year-old demographic extensively via mobile advertising and urged supporters to spread the word.

Understanding Marketing and Advertising

Politics are just one example of how much of an impact marketing and advertising have on our world. Learn more about how you can achieve your professional goals with an education from Point Park.

B.A. in Public Relations and Advertising