Presidential elections are increasingly viewed as contests between brands, a word referring not so much to the candidates themselves - who they are, what policies they stand for - as the carefully crafted packages of messages and images used to sell them, just as cars, hamburgers, tech gadgets and other consumer brands are sold.
The Obama and Romney campaigns certainly behave like other brands. Together they’ve already spent more than half a billion dollars on TV ads alone - and that’s before the nominating conventions.
What if you could track Brand Obama and Brand Romney just as other brands are now tracked, using sophisticated technologies to measure and understand the public’s response to their messages, ads and other initiatives? What if you could make sense of the huge, vibrant political conversation citizens are having every day in social media, responding to those ads and other marketing efforts, along with the news coverage? What if you could trace the effect of social media on the election itself, and thus get a glimpse of the political future?
The Crowdwire is here to do all of this and more, through frequent data-driven analysis of the Obama-Romney race, with a particular focus on the social dimension. We begin with an idea we’ll revisit often - the brand race.
It goes without saying that choosing a president is more important than choosing between Coke and Pepsi. And what ultimately matters is the individual behind the package. But in their efforts to get our attention and win us over, the candidates are competing not just with each other, but with the teeming thousands of brands that populate everyday life. To break through the noise, they use the same tools as the commercial competition, from bumper stickers and billboards to TV and web ads.
This is nothing new. The first popular book about the commercialization of politics was published more than forty years ago. But with every election cycle, the game gets more sophisticated and intense.
Conventional wisdom says most voters tune out presidential races until just before Election Day, and every four years there are reports of apathy worsening. Is this true? Are the two campaigns really failing to generate interest and engagement?
To analyze political brands, news outlets have long relied on polls and campaign experts, and lately both candidates have received lackluster reviews. “Is Obama Losing His Brand?” asked an ABC News/Yahoo! piece about the latest Obama campaign ads. The Republicans “have a real brand problem,” a GOP strategist recently told CBS News. Adweek warned: “Neither presidential candidate is doing a great job in building the kind of brand that will motivate voters on Election Day.”
Social media offer a new window on this question, a kind of mass focus-group about every topic imaginable including politics. Twitter and Facebook played a role in the 2008 campaign, but their user numbers were relatively small. Since then, the tools have gone mainstream, and they’re changing the political process before our eyes.
The election narrative still unfolds largely on television, through debates, conventions, news coverage and ads. But now millions of people respond to these events through social media, effectively becoming participants. They include many whose views aren’t captured by polls, notably younger people who don’t have landline phone numbers (still the principal way pollsters reach likely voters).
Not all voters use social media today. But as more join the conversation over time, this will become an increasingly rich, real-time portrait of the public’s take on politics.
The Crowdwire is a project of Bluefin Labs of Cambridge, Massachusetts (read more about it here). Using Bluefin’s analytical tools, we pitted Brand Romney and Brand Obama against about 600 of the largest consumer brands. Though brands are just a part of the social discussion, they’re a handy gauge of how the candidates are faring in the quest for attention.
So far in social media, they’re doing very well. In the last month, Obama was the most talked-about brand, with 6.9 million public social comments. At No. 2 was the iPhone, with 6.1 million comments. And Mitt Romney was at No. 3, with 5.6 million comments, just above the new Batman movie (heavily discussed in part because of the Colorado massacre). And the former Massachusetts governor actually beat the iPhone for social “exposure,” meaning that more influential people (as measured by follower counts) tended to talk about him.*
A few caveats:
- The candidate who looms largest in the social sphere isn’t necessarily winning the race. As a sitting president, Obama draws many comments unrelated to the election. Plus a hefty share of social commentary about presidential contenders is negative, and it often spikes when they’ve committed a gaffe, a phenomenon we’ll explore in future posts.
- The social-media population is not a mirror of the electorate at large. Twitter is younger and more urban, for instance. (As today’s users age and the tools are more widely adopted, such biases will likely decline.)
- Obama and Romney were the only public figures we tested and ranked against consumer brands. But there are a handful of other celebrities who would have been high on this list. Justin Bieber is currently more talked about on Twitter than both presidential candidates combined.
- We did not include the vice presidential candidates in this analysis because Paul Ryan joined the Romney ticket so recently. But as the election progresses, we’ll be tracking both Ryan and Biden closely.
As these nuances suggest, to truly understand the social conversation, you have to go deep. That’s what this blog will strive to do. Millions are speaking their minds about the election in unprecedented ways. Come back often to find out what it all means.