Scene: Pennsylvania primary night. Barack Obama, vanquished but valiant in defeat, strode to the microphone and fired off a volley of thank yous. Despite the political pageantry, viewers’ attention was drawn to three young men directly behind Obama. Cheering and holding signs for change was a trio sporting shirts with Abercrombie & Fitch logos so large that they sometimes dominated the screen. The shirts, likely new but appearing well worn, were an advertiser’s dream. Investigation revealed that the three were just big fans of frat-boy clothing, not guerilla marketers.
Advertising, intentional or otherwise, is everywhere in election events. Hillary Rodham Clinton downed a shot of Crown Royal to prove she can drink with the blue-collar voters. Maureen Dowd lauded Obama for drinking a Budweiser in Indiana to show his man-of-the-people credentials.
Stephen Colbert briefly became the official candidate of Doritos with a comically populist bid for the Oval Office “sponsored” by the cheesy corn chip—although federal election law would frown on corporate sponsorship of a candidate. Candidates sometimes are being judged almost as much for their consumption choices as for their policy. Even California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger featured Diet Pepsi in a recent campaign ad.
Rewind to 1950 and Great Britain’s elections. The Labour Party, enjoying a majority in the House of Commons, called for public ownership of the steel, cement, and sugar industries. Sugar company Tate & Lyle fought back, making Mr. Cube, the company’s cartoon spokesman, ubiquitous in the campaign; he appeared everywhere urging voters to keep the “state” out of “Tate.” The House of Commons debated whether Mr. Cube qualified as advertising or political electioneering, but it couldn’t keep the sugar lump quiet. Labour dropped from 393 to 315 seats. The industries remained private.
American companies aren’t trying product placement in politics, but they don’t mind the attention that comes from campaign appearances. A 30-second ad during CNN’s The Situation Room or MSNBC’s Hardball runs about $5,000, while the same time on The O’Reilly Factor costs upward of $30,000. But getting a candidate to order your drink by name? Priceless.
Alan Andreasen, professor of marketing at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, says products in campaigns enjoy a “deluge of buzz on social networks” and are helped a lot by exposure on news channels and late-night talk shows. The “name recognition and top-of-the-mind recall” these products gain are very valuable, he says.
But not always politically helpful. Clinton took heat from Kentucky bourbon makers for ordering a Canadian whisky. Distiller Evan Williams sent her a bottle of the real Kentucky stuff.