Book Review: Spin

National Post, November 7, 2014

Spin: How Politics Has the Power to Turn Marketing on its Head
Clive Veroni
House of Anansi
$19.95; 328 pgs

Who won the first televised US presidential debate? It depends who you ask. According to radio listeners, Richard Nixon defeated John F. Kennedy on that fateful day in 1960. But according to TV viewers—and there were 70 million of them—the fresh-faced Kennedy trounced the pale, unshaven VP. Why the discrepancy? Nixon ignored his team’s advice to wear makeup. The media-savvy candidate won. Thus, a new era of media-centric electioneering began.

TV’s rise coincided with the decline of social institutions—churches, trade unions, political parties—that had long shaped voter behaviour. Media outlets became battlegrounds for political campaigns. Before long, politicians turned to the persuasion experts on Madison Avenue. By 1964, DDB was helping Lyndon Johnson paint Barry Goldwater as a warmonger. By 1978, Saatchi & Saatchi were consulting with Thatcher’s Conservatives.

Back then, these partnerships were controversial; advertising’s role in politics—transforming politicians into brands and platforms into slogans—was the subject of much handwringing. Nowadays, such handwringing seems quaint. More notable, perhaps, are the campaign materials designed not by professional art directors, but by grassroots supporters. Like Shepard Fairey, whose “Hope” poster defined Obama’s 2008 campaign.

For Toronto-based marketing strategist Clive Veroni, the Fairey poster reflects a turning point. After a half-century of politicos learning from marketers, Veroni writes in Spin, “the flow of knowledge has reversed.” His book, he says, will “trace that transformation, as the lessons of political campaigning move from the political war room to the boardroom.” Spin promises to pick up where Sasha Issenberg’s The Victory Lab—which explores the campaign tactics, data mining, behavioural economics and psychology that transformed recent elections—leaves off. Veroni identifies three key sites of this transformation: audience segmentation; message transmission; and human resources.

Early in Spin, we learn of Stephen Harper’s decision to snub Earth Day in 2008, brightly lighting 24 Sussex as the world powered down. The move raised the ire of environmentalists and sounded “a dog whistle” for loyalists. We learn of fashion designer Tom Ford, whose YSL fragrance ad of 2000, featuring a nearly nude Sophie Dahl, generated complaints but resonated with the fashion crowd. Both men—kindred spirits, no doubt—understood that “if you blow the right whistle you’ll attract your most committed tribe of followers. And that can build tremendous loyalty, even while it might anger others.” The breezy, entertaining anecdotes reflect a recurring flaw of Spin: They are connected in a loose, thematic sense, but fail to reflect any meaningful flow of knowledge.

Veroni keenly understands a now well-accepted truth about advertising: It’s dying.
Veroni later argues that speed is crucial for marketers to seize opportunities and confront challenges. The chapter is called, “Speed Kills,” an axiom coined by James Carville, who led Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992, a year after CNN birthed the 24-hour news cycle. Speed still kills: Just look at Oreo’s “You can still dunk in the dark” ad, which was conceived, written, designed, approved and Tweeted during the 34-minute power outage that interrupted the 2012 Superbowl. The ad generated some half-billion impressions, stealing the show on a night when 30 seconds of airtime (to reach 100 million viewers) cost $4 million. The secret to Oreo’s success “was not its creative brilliance but the sheer speed with which it [was] executed.” Agile and responsive, Oreo joined the public conversation in real time, diving into the “democratized world of communications, where the consumer is no longer just the passive receiver of marketing messages.” The parallels to Carville are clear, but the reader is left to wonder: Had Oreo’s digital team recently watched the Clinton campaign documentary, The War Room, or are they just good at the internet?

Veroni keenly understands a now well-accepted truth about advertising: It’s dying. In a crowded media landscape, it’s tougher than ever to persuade and mobilize people. At the same time, political campaigns have been doing just that with remarkable success. (Little surprise, perhaps, that innovation has followed the flow of capital; the 2012 U.S. Presidential campaigns cost roughly $2 billion—more than McDonald’s global ad budget.) Veroni’s thesis is timely and apt. Regrettably, he fails to tell the story he describes.

No doubt, Civis Analytics could have warranted more attention. The company, founded by former Obama data guru Dan Wagner, has applied its conjoint analysis techniques, honed during the campaign, to scooter-maker Piaggio’s communications. Same for Blue State Digital, an agency with political roots, which has built a social network for Green Bay Packers fans, and boosted subscriptions for Vogue.

Perhaps the flaws of Spin are an apt metaphor for the ad industry itself: Its players can feel the ground shifting beneath their feet. They can talk about the changing landscape with great conviction, but dig a little deeper and it becomes clear: Nobody really knows what’s happening.

Read the story at NationalPost.com.