A climber has no idea what the view from the top of a yet-unconquered mountain will be. That has to wait for the summit to be reached. In the same way, trying to foresee what the world will be like once COVID-19 is finally gone from headlines and top-of-mind is difficult. One certainty is already obvious, however. The world won’t run as it did before.
The current U.S. elections are an example, unfolding before our eyes. From the beginning of this century through 2016, the major factors were money and TV time. The latter has increased dramatically in price during the last two decades, and political ad spending has followed in lock-step. The press and pundits, laser focused on the national races, have failed to notice that the cost of local races—the state legislatures, county boards of supervisors, mayoral contests, even school board races—have grown in cost and marketing complexity as well. These days, it costs candidates as much to compete for state assembly seats as it did to run for the U.S. House of Representatives at the turn of the century. Local spending makes up almost half of every political marketing dollar spent in the nation.
Little noted in all the furor and angst that marked the 2016 presidential election is the fact that the biggest spender didn’t win. Clinton heavily outspent Trump and broadcast far more TV spots than her rival. Yet few opinions about money and politics have changed since then. Analysts still measure candidate war chests as accurately as they can, just as seers in Julius Caesar’s day examined chicken entrails. Michael Bloomberg makes headlines vowing to spend one hundred million dollars to wrest Florida from Trump’s electors. Has anybody noticed what is happening to network TV viewership?
Sure, it’s true that older people watch network TV with greater frequency than their offspring, and that they are the most reliable voters in our population—but even their numbers are hardly encouraging right now. This may be the second presidential cycle in a row where big TV spending does not bring home the biggest votes.
Pushing mega-spending through the web may not be an answer either. It’s been proven that people who rely on their smart phones a lot don’t like them filled with ads of any sort very much. They have tools to dodge or deflect them, and are easily annoyed when these defenses are breached.
Right now, both major political candidates seem content to offer broadsides excoriating their rival as events take place. Very little thoughtful discussion of ideas and planned policies is issuing from them. This has been left to surrogates and bumper stickers.
If all this is true, and exacerbated by the current pandemic, how will politicians market themselves in the future? It seems more and more likely that they are going to have to rely more on personal contact and word of mouth. Big rallies, bus tours, and door-to-door campaigns may be resurrected from the past and made frontline campaign components again.
COVID-19 may have pushed forward a trend that was already building—pushing mass media aside in favor of more personal contact. This trend won’t be limited to political marketing either. Look for its echoes in many other parts of your life in the future, from new cars to chewing gum. The bottom line is this: people don’t want to mix their entertainment with advertising as much as they used to. They don’t mind paying (a little) for programs and events they want to see. How technology deals with this challenge will be interesting, even though our grandchildren will take it all for granted—just as we surprised our folks with the way we liked TV.