Ad Watch: Is Michael Bloomberg Citizen Kane, or the Fyre Festival candidate?

“Nothing makes a bad product fail faster than a great advertising campaign.” This is probably the most quoted line from William Bernbach, the legendary “Mad Men”-era co-founder of the agency DDB. Under Bernbach’s creative direction, DDB produced some of the most memorable advertising of the twentieth century, including “Think Small,” the agency’s timeless campaign for Volkswagen. The notion that great creative hastens the death of an inferior product speaks to both the power and limits of advertising. The presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg, who owns a media empire and whose net worth exceeds $60 billion, offers up a candidate the likes of which has not been seen outside of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. But Bloomberg may run smack into Bernbach’s theorem.

When considering the Bloomberg campaign’s advertising, you have to start with the money. The sums Bloomberg is spending are simply without precedent. In the three months since he announced his campaign, he’s burned through more than half a billion dollars on advertising. That’s more than McDonald’s spent on all of its advertising globally in 2018. If Bloomberg were to continue this rate of spending through the Democratic convention in July—which is certainly possible regardless of whether he starts winning primaries—his advertising budget would exceed the recent annual marketing budgets of several Fortune 500 companies. Look at this graph of his television spending and this chart of his spending on Facebook. Bloomberg is spending so much, so fast, he’s squeezing his rivals by driving up the price on the dwindling TV ad inventory

To a marketer, this media tsunami is jaw-dropping stuff. It just doesn’t happen. And for all the chatter these days among marketing professionals about the supposed death of advertising, there’s no question it worked—vaulting Bloomberg from polling around two percent the day he announced his candidacy in November to passing Elizabeth Warren in national polls, despite Bloomberg having skipped the first four state contests. Bernie Sanders, another Democratic candidate and the US senator from Vermont, criticized the Bloomberg ad blitz as an attempt to “buy the presidency.”

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This isn’t the first time Blomberg has run via his checkbook. He tested the approach nearly two decades ago when he ran for the mayoralty of New York City. In that 2001 race, Bloomberg outspent his Democratic opponent Mark Green by a four-to-one margin—$73.9M to $16.3M. Bloomberg lost Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, and yet, by running up the score in Queens and Staten Island, he secured a modest two-point win. It’s not clear how that approach will work in a national Democratic primary, let alone the presidential election, with its stubborn electoral-college math; still, Bloomberg is betting on it. 

So: What, exactly, is he spending his money on?

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Bloomberg announced his campaign on November 24, 2019, with a fairly boilerplate ad. There’s Bloomberg’s record as a “jobs creator,” and his performance as mayor in the aftermath of 9/11. Every new project he undertakes—from launching his business empire, to being elected mayor of New York, to his advocacy for gun safety and climate change—is introduced with the clunky line, “He could’ve stopped there.” After about three of those, you sort of wish the writer of the spot had. Concluding with a poll-driven laundry list of Democratic primary voters’ priorities, “Rebuild America” didn’t exactly set a high creative bar.

That spot has been followed by at least 180 more, some of which—especially those that attack Donald Trump—have been inspired. 

Trump’s Real Super Bowl Ad,” smartly produced in a vertical format for optimal smartphone viewing, is one of the best of the lot. Set to a percussive, unnerving score, it visually recaps the horrors of the Trump era—Charlottesville, the border crisis, Parkland—and ends with the hashtag “#DumpTrump.” Bloomberg the candidate is nowhere to be seen.

Against a simple but disturbing visual of an empty, damaged classroom, “Here’s Every School Shooting Since Trump Took Office” effectively and soberingly chronicles the 263 school shootings that have taken place on Trump’s watch, with an angry Bloomberg concluding, “The sick relationship between Trump and the NRA just has to stop.” 

Then there’s “Bring Presidential Back,” which is also optimized for social and which juxtaposes historic speeches by former presidents from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama with Trump’s vulgarity. It’s effective and startling. Still other ads highlight his efforts to combat climate change.

But the Bloomberg campaign isn’t just producing a mountain of television spots and social videos. To borrow from a favorite Rodney Dangerfield joke, they’ve taken a look at the menu and said, “OK.” They’re creating social content and memes, produced by the promoter behind the now infamous Fyre Festival. From a public-relations perspective, this might not have been the best hire for a candidate who launched himself into the top tier of the primary on the strength of his advertising only to be cut down and stacked into neat little pieces in the first 90 seconds of his first debate appearance by Elizabeth Warren. They’re also putting up snarky billboards that troll the president by mocking some of his off-putting idiosyncrasies—but you’d think “Donald Trump locks kids in cages” would be a better line of attack than “Donald Trump cheats at golf.”

Looking at the totality of Bloomberg’s advertising, there’s a problem. The campaign lacks a unified message. In the end, we’re left with two takeaways: Bloomberg hates Trump, and he can afford to put his message on every screen and billboard in America. Neither is sufficient. “I oppose Donald Trump” is table-stakes messaging in a Democratic primary, and “I’m filthy rich” isn’t exactly the way to warm Democratic hearts.

To be fair, it’s generally the case that it takes time for a campaign and candidate to find their voices. When you think of Ronald Reagan’s campaigns, you think first of “Morning in America,” created and narrated by the legendary San Francisco adman Hal Riney and still regarded as one of the most effective presidential campaign ads of all time. But Reagan’s milquetoast 1980 launch spot is all but forgotten. Barack Obama, who was the beneficiary of arguably the most daring creative of any national politician to hold office during the past 30 years—some of the best of which wasn’t produced by the campaign itself—launched his campaign with a rather anodyne ad

In those cases, the campaign advertising ultimately channeled and reinforced their candidates’ brands—Obama’s eloquent cool, Reagan’s “sunny optimism.” So what’s Bloomberg’s? Does the creator of one of the most powerful brands in business have one of his own? Does anyone really think Mike is the kind of guy to use the “burn” emoji or to tweet “Impeached president says what?” in response to Trump? Or tweet at all?

Bloomberg’s personality is by now established. He often comes off as a peevish, arrogant mogul. He’s a New Yorker whose tone and countenance always seems to ask exasperatingly, Why must you people waste my time? That’s not necessarily the best hand a marketer could be dealt, but it’s definitely a brand, and at least it scans as “adult.” If you channelled that consistently, and paired it with something other than “Trump is bad,” it could be effective against an erratic and often childish president in the general. 

The problem is, this is the primary. Bloomberg needs to give Democrats a reason to choose him over other Democrats—not Trump. In advertising, getting people’s attention isn’t enough. You have to get the right people to think the right things.

It may be too late. After a second brutal debate appearance, in which Bloomberg once again spent most of the evening as Elizabeth Warren’s punching bag, his polling numbers have stalled. Candidates are usually forgiven a single bad debate performance, but almost never two. There’s no question Bloomberg’s advertising blitz worked: people bought their tickets, booked their flights, and showed up for the concert. But it’s not clear if the bands are actually going to play.

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John Long is a creative director and writer based in New York. With a focus on advertising and politics, he’s written for The Drum, The New Republic, and McSweeney’s.

TOP IMAGE: Screenshot from Bloomberg's "Rebuild America" ad, via YouTube.