Why Most Marketing and Political Campaigns Fail

In both business and politics, leaders tend to overestimate how much they have in common with their audience

Photo: Simon Launay/Unsplash

Perhaps the most basic political fact about the Covid relief bill Congress just passed —and that I wrote about a couple of days ago — is that its provisions are, for the most part, widely popular and largely uncontroversial. As a result, it’s a great example of Democrats doing something that seems politically obvious, but which they’ve often struggled to do: focusing on policies that are popular with voters, and avoiding policies that aren’t.

One of the main voices in recent years emphasizing the need for Democrats to pursue this strategy has been David Shor, who’s head of data science at a progressive nonprofit called OpenLabs and one of the most interesting analysts of modern American politics. Shor spends a lot of time analyzing election data, and looking at the effectiveness of political messaging, particularly by Democrats. He recently did an interview about the lessons of the 2020 election with Eric Levitz of New York that’s well worth reading. And he also had an intriguing conversation with Bloomberg blogger Noah Smith, taking a big-picture look at the American political scene and the challenges that Democrats face going forward.

I highly recommend listening to the whole conversation with Smith, because Shor upends, or at least complicates, a lot of casual assumptions about public opinion, the role of political leadership, and the value (or lack thereof) of public confrontation. A few of his points:

  • A lot of policy progress happens, paradoxically, by not making a big deal out of what you’re doing, because that avoids activating strong opposition from the other side. (The recent omnibus budget bill, for instance, includes some genuinely progressive stuff on climate change, in part because Democrats deliberately avoided making a to-do about it, which in turn kept it from becoming a cause célèbre for Republicans.)
  • When a president comes out strongly in favor of a controversial subject, it not only doesn’t automatically make their position more popular, but it can actually backfire and make it less popular.
  • It’s relatively easy to go from 8% public support for a position to 30%. Getting from 30% to 70% is much much harder and not something political parties can do on their own. So avoiding talking too much about issues that have only 30% public support is probably a good political strategy.

Shor’s most interesting point, though, is valuable not just for political parties, but for any business or organization, and that has to do with the danger of paying too much attention to what is sometimes called an “internal audience.” In the simplest terms, listening too closely to the people who work for you can actually make it harder to reach your customers (or, in the case of politics, voters).

As part of its analysis of recent elections, for instance, OpenLabs has tested lots of different political ads with voters. Shor says they found that not only were many Democratic ads ineffective but that a full 20% of them made voters say they were more likely to vote Republican — exactly the opposite of what the ads were trying to accomplish. Even more strikingly, the more people in the office liked the ads, generally speaking, the worse they did.

There’s a simple explanation for this: The people who work on Democratic campaigns have very little in common with voters, Democratic or swing. As Shor puts it, they’re “very educated, they live in cities, they’re disproportionately white, and they’re very young.” The issues that matter to them are, not surprisingly, issues that don’t necessarily matter much (if at all) to the average voter, who doesn’t have a college degree, doesn’t live in a big city, and is middle-aged. As an example, Shor says that a third of Obama staffers in 2012 said that income inequality was their most important issue. Less than 1% of undecided voters — the voters who matter most — said the same.

What the Democratic Party has, then, is an internal audience problem: The ads, and issues, that appeal to the people who work for it don’t appeal to—and in some cases actively alienate—the people they’re trying to reach. And this is not a problem that’s unique to Democrats or political parties generally. On the contrary, organizations everywhere struggle with this.

Corporate marketing departments and advertising agencies, for instance, are largely staffed by younger people. So even though older adults have the most disposable income and even though their brand preferences are far more fluid than they once were, companies focus an inordinate amount of attention on trying to reach younger consumers — thus the obsession in television with viewers aged 18 to 49.

Similarly, one of the perennial problems in the tech industry is feature creep, in which devices and services are overloaded with options and features that most consumers won’t ever use and that often make the user experience actively more confusing and frustrating. As I’ve argued before, one reason for this is that the engineers who design and build tech products often have little in common with the average consumer. They have less trouble navigating a packed set of features, so for them, the more the better, while consumers often think the simpler the better.

There’s an obvious answer to all this: Listen to the people you’re trying to reach. But it’s easier said than done, both because you want to keep the people who work for you excited about what they’re doing and because it’s natural for us to assume that if we like something, other people will as well. Shor’s interview is a reminder for Democrats — and everyone else — that preaching to the choir is a good way to end up delivering a sermon that no one else wants to hear.

I’m the author of The Wisdom of Crowds. I’ve been a business columnist for Slate and The New Yorker and written for a wide range of other publications.

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