The Idea Must Travel – Meme Consumption and Ad Spending in the 2012 Election Cycle
Published: November 6, 2012
Author: Molly Shotwell
Today’s post is by Anthony Young, Director of Online Acquisition at SnapLogic. All opinions expressed here are solely his own and do not reflect the position or opinions of SnapLogic or SnapLogic’s investors. Follow Anthony on Twitter at @RexSFO.
Dianna Vreeland, the late and much-celebrated fashion icon, writer and editor for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, had a gift for finding the exceptional in her subjects. That which society considered a negative was celebrated as a positive in her models: the iconography of Barbara Streisand’s nose, Mick Jagger’s lips, the gap in Lauren Hutton’s teeth. The fashion memes created by Vreeland became anchored to and defined these future stars long after she introduced them into the world.
The ethereal world of ideas coexists with the biosphere and shares the properties of a living organism, which even include viruses. Humanity has spawned this virtual world of ideas that replicate and mutate with real-world consequences. The extremist nature of American politics is a prime example. A recent Pew Research poll shows the Republican Party becoming more extremist while the Democrats have remained essentially the same since 1988, when the poll was first conducted, supports this view. Yet politicians on both sides of the aisle have necessarily become adept at spreading digestible narratives with loose factual associations.
This other side of viral memetic infection is not as culturally endearing as Vreeland’s philosophy. A favorite device used by Republican political strategist Karl Rove is a distorted mirror image of Vreeland – a narcissistic détournement of a political opponent’s strength into a negative. Often this is achieved with a very thin thread of plausible ‘evidence’ or even outright lies. Think of the ‘Swift Boating’ of John Kerry in 2004 or the suspicions surrounding Obama’s birth certificate. These are very toxic ideas infecting the minds of low-information voters that help win elections. But it’s not the only meme and surely not the ugliest of ideas promoted this election cycle.
We believe what we want to believe.
The cost of the 2012 election cycle, as reported by Politico, will be an eye-popping $6 billion – roughly $2.5 billion going toward the presidential race alone. House and Senate candidates in fiercely contested races around the country will spend the multi-billion-dollar balance on lower-ticket contests. Presidential election cycles are an enormous financial boon to major media networks for obvious reasons. The Federal Election Commission keeps a tally on revenue and expenditures of the campaigns, so it’s the go-to place to find out who is giving money and how the candidates are spending their funds. (A notable exception is money contributed to super PACs, which doesn’t have the same reporting requirements.) It should come as no surprise that approximately 50% of this money is spent on advertising.
Politics and search marketing have a lot in common. Both are deeply rooted in brand marketing and reputation management. Both rely heavily on distilled messaging by way of key terms and phrases, which play a crucial role in winning votes or increasing conversions. Vectoring, however, may be the single largest distinction between the two…in relation to key terms, search marketing is largely about capturing a share of the existing search volume, whereas politics is mostly the genesis of the idea or meme that creates the search volume.
There are a number of blogs posts and articles along with a smattering of websites popping up connecting the dots between SEO and the respective political campaigns. Most of the comparisons are a bit unfair to Gov. Romney because of the length of time and the world stage President Obama has enjoyed since 2007. Obama has a minimum 4x advantage over Romney on almost every conceivable metric. However, even when viewing incremental growth, the delta between the two candidates favors Obama to a large degree. I suspect for all the toxic ads on display, there exists far less enthusiasm for Romney and far more disdain <sic. racism> for Obama. It’s the Republican Party’s ‘Southern Strategy’ writ large this election cycle.
So we know there are toxic ideas infecting our minds, but it seems no one is asking the question: is this cognitive dissonance or willful ignorance? Or does it even matter? Take, for example, the following two graphics. The first map shows the states with the country’s strictest anti-gay marriage laws in red (note the preponderance of southern states). The second graphic shows the search volume for the term “free gay sex” by state. It’s quite astonishing that folks will vote against their own self-interests.
In a 1996 interview, John Perry Barlow made a statement that cut a groove in my psyche: “Most people have become profoundly skeptical of … mass media. For all intents and purposes, the mass media have become a collective hallucination.” The flood of unregulated Super Pac money makes this notion ever more palpable. Barlow continues by pointing out that because of the corporate business pressures on media to turn a profit, it becomes impossible to report anything except what the masses already believe. So in essence, a mass medium exists to ‘confirm the illusions of the crowd,’ and to sell the attention of that audience. So “if what you’re about is selling attention, then you’re also about getting it by whatever means are required.”
There are true believers in both parties, for sure, so I won’t attempt to promote a ‘fair and balanced’ position because that’s really only another meme, which has a false equivalency at its core. In Mike Lofgren’s latest article in The American Conservative, Revolt of the Rich, he speaks of the illusory superiority of the wealthy class or plutocrats (itself a pejorative meme) and states “the super-rich have achieved escape velocity from the gravitational pull of the very society they rule over. They have seceded from America.”
Republican political consultant Frank Luntz and his focus groups tested a counter-meme that rebrands the wealthiest Americans as ‘job creators’ and best illustrates the outrageous cynicism and manipulation so explicit this election cycle. Notice the graphic from Google Trends that shows when this meme gained prominence just before the 2010 mid-term elections, when the Republicans had enormous gains in the House of Representatives, largely legitimizing the Tea Party.
Bill Clinton repeated the phrase “building a bridge to the 21st century” over 20 times in his 68-minute acceptance speech to the Democrat National Convention in 1996. Many intellectuals and journalists disdained this seeming mindless repetition of message aimed at infecting the psyches of potential constituents. It was a picture painted of prosperity through progress and new ideas versus the negativity and gloom of the aging Bob Dole. It was a time of great economic growth and prosperity, and the messaging served as a nice tailwind that helped push the campaign to a handy victory. Our technology footprint has grown, and with it the means by which to distribute ideas at scale. Susan Blackmore coined the phrase teme, which is a meme that spreads itself via technology. So Rush Limbaugh sneezes and a vast ecosystem catches his religion.
James Gleick writes in The Information, “When a jingle lingers in our ears, or a fad turns fashion upside down, or a hoax dominates the global chatter for months and vanishes as swiftly as it came, who is master and who is slave?”
– Anthony Young