In the early days of World War II, someone asked Josef Stalin why the Red Army was building so many tens of thousands of tanks. “Quantity,” he replied, “has a quality all its own.”
While that policy worked at the battle of Stalingrad in the 1940s, it failed miserably some seven decades later, in the 2010 midterm Congressional elections.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, this was the most expensive midterm election in American history, with an estimated total of $4 billion spent on advertising. Most of it with little effect.
Nationally, Democrats spent 16% more than Republicans in the House elections, with a negative return on investment — a loss of 60 seats and counting.
Acording to Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, Democratic House candidates and affiliate groups spent $142 million for television advertising through end of October, while Republicans and their affiliates spent only $119 million (not counting cable buys, which haven’t yet been compiled for either side). And you know how that turned out.
Money can’t buy you love
The difference becomes starker when you calculate cost per seat won. Republicans spent an average of $497,908 for each of the 239 seats their party won, while the Democrats averaged $759,358 for each of their 187 House seats. In other words (or, more accurately, other numbers) they spent 53% more for each of 22% fewer seats.
But the Democrats weren’t the only ones who spent more and had less to show for it.
Meg Whitman spent $160 million ($142 million of it from her own pocket) only to lose to once and future governor Jerry Brown, whose campaign expenditures, augmented by fellow-traveler groups, came to only $50 million. As of the latest ballot count, that means Whitman spent $52.12 per vote, while each Brown vote cost $12.61, a mere pittance.
Sharron Angle’s campaign spent $97 per vote and still lost to Harry Reid’s ($69 per vote, counting expenditures by interest groups). Some 17 congressional campaigns shelled out more than $60 per vote received; ten of the candidates were Democrats, and seven of them lost.
Upstate New York incumbent Scott Murphy, for example, spent $6.5 million, or $66 for each of the 99,000 votes he got, while retired army colonel Chris Gibson spent half as much per vote — and won by 10%.
The most cost-effective campaigner was new freshman Minnesota congressman Chip Craavack. His $610,000 campaign averaged about $5 per vote, which was enough to beat 18-term incumbent Jim Oberstar’s $2.3 million ($18 per vote) budget.
Now, Virginia having state elections in odd-numbered years, and the 7th District being a safe one, we in the Richmond metro area have been spared this political advertising cornucopia. But there’s an important lesson we can all learn from it nonetheless — particularly those of us who are advertisers.
Message beats money
That lesson is that spending less but airing a more focused and resonant message beats spending more to air an unfocused message that’s irrelevant to your target audience — hands down.
“The GOP message — less government, spending cuts and displeasure with health-care reform — clearly resonated,” reports Advertising Age, “especially in the nation’s slumping Midwestern core, where the party’s gains were particularly pronounced.”
Kantar’s Evan Tracy agrees. The party was “more focused and unified,” he says, and their “money deficit was offset by having a clear message that they could hammer: ‘We’re not them.'”
Michigan’s gubernatorial campaign illustrates the superiority of message over money. Unknown and uncharismatic former Gateway president Rick Snyder won the Republican primary by positioning himself as “one tough nerd.” He built his campaign for the election itself around a ten-point job restoration plan he described as so detailed, “no politican could ever understand it.” He won by about 20 points.
Every day, consumers vote with their wallets
In the marketplace, every day is election day. So if you’re an advertiser, while it’s important to have enough media money to get your message noticed, it’s vital, crucial, essential that your message itself talk clearly and single-mindedly to your target audience, in terms they understand, and with benefits that matter to them.
Oh, and it has to reflect reality. If you’ve got a product so bad that consumers really hate it, no amount of blaming the messaging, or remessaging, or demeaning the audience, will change that — unless you change the product, of course. (That’s another lesson from this year’s elections.)
With the right message, based on the right product, you’ll avoid overspending just to lose sales. And you’ll keep a smarter competitor who understands this principle from cleaning your clock in the voting machines we call cash registers.