Has Donald Trump Changed Political Advertising Forever?

How The Trump Ethos Is Rewriting The Rules.

Donald Trump
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Donald J. Trump.

His name instantly conjures a vision of a bombastic businessman, surrounded by gold and attractive ladies, hogging the spotlight and saying inflammatory things. The phrase “love him or hate him, you cannot ignore him” feels like it was written just for Trump. And now, with Ted Cruz and John Kasich out of the political race, it is almost certain that Donald Trump will be the Republican candidate for the 2016 Presidential election.

But how is this possible? How did he pull off the most audacious primary campaign in the history of politics, beating out all the critics who said he was nothing more than a sideshow?

While it’s true that he is a Washington outsider, and the general public is clearly desperate for a change like that, he was not the only one. Fiorina was an outsider. Dr. Ben Carson was an outsider. And yet, they got nowhere near the kind of media attention that Trump got throughout the primary process. After millions of dollars in advertising, one man is coming out on top…and he’s spending less than everyone else.

The Ad Spend So Far

While his competitors were throwing money on ad campaigns, many of them vicious attacks on each other and Trump in particular, the Donald was laying very low. By March 1st of 2016, Trump had spent just $10 million on advertising. That’s peanuts in this political arena, especially when you consider how much money he actually has to spend. By comparison, Hillary Clinton had spent $32 million, Marco Rubio spent $49 million, and Jeb Bush spent a whopping $85 million, all to no avail.

Now, Rubio and Bush are out, with nothing to show for that vast ad spend. And as the contest nears the conventions, the money is flowing into advertising…but not that much from Trump. At the time of this article, his total advertising spend is just $49 million dollars, of which $36 million is his own money. Compare that to Hillary Clinton, who has so far spent $187 million. That’s an astonishing spend of $155 million in just 2 months, compared to Trump’s $39 million. And yet, whom is everyone talking about?

Donald Trump.

It all comes down to one strategy; shock and awe.

You Don’t Need Ads When You Dominate The News

Earned media, as it’s usually called, is the value put on coverage you get that you don’t have to pay for. Whether it’s in social media chatter, news stories, late night shows, or articles in publications, this is coverage that costs the candidate nothing. It’s the ideal scenario for any candidate…spend as little as possible, get blanket media coverage.

As of March, Jeb Bush had received $214 million of free media coverage vs. an ad spend of $82 million. Cruz got $313 million vs. a $22 million ad spend. Clinton, she got $746 million in free coverage vs. her ad spend of $28 million.

Then there’s Trump. Ad spend - $10 million, earned media - $1.89 billion. Let that sink in for a moment, because it’s a phenomenal achievement.

By now, the earned media is well over $2 billion for Trump, and it’s the reason he decimated his rivals. Before the race, he was already a household name and has massive recognition. Now…well, the name on everyone’s lips is Trump.

Now, as Oscar Wilde once famously said, “there is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that’s not being talked about.”

That, right there, is the Trump campaign in a nutshell. Say something provocative, get people talking, and dominate the airwaves. Combined with how Trump says what he says, and his refusal to censor himself, and you have dynamite. The press can’t get enough. Comedians love it. Social media is on fire.

Other candidates tried, and failed, to copy the Trump formula. They said seemingly crazy or alarming things, and they got into the weeds with Trump over various issues. But they were attacking him on his own turf. This is his playground. As he outlines in his book “The Art of The Deal,” he uses tactics like this to put people off guard, and control the conversation.  He knows exactly what he’s doing when he says such incendiary things, but he’s a master of turning that around to keep the focus on himself.


Trump Statements That Grabbed Headlines

It would be impossible to list them all, Trump seemingly releases something new and provocative on a daily basis, but here are just a few statements that earned Trump millions in free media:

"Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on. 

"I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot people and I wouldn't lose voters

“I think the only difference between me and the other candidates is that I’m more honest and my women are more beautiful.” 

"Lyin' Ted Cruz just used a picture of Melania from a shoot in his ad. Be careful, Lyin' Ted, or I will spill the beans on your wife!"

"You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever. In my opinion, she was off base." 

"When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people." 

So, What Does This Mean For Future Political Advertising?

This 2016 election campaign will be studied for years to come. From the vast amount of Republican candidates that entered the fray, to the incredibly bizarre comments and infighting, there’s a lot to study. But the biggest aspect of all this will be the way the Trump campaign dominated the media without spending a lot of money.

It’s very likely that in 2020, candidates will use this information to lay the groundwork for campaigns that are focused on earned media coverage, rather than the typical attack ads and outdoor campaigns. Expect to see candidates employing hoards of social media experts, and PR agencies tasked with creating stunts that will get a massive ROI on eared media coverage. And this battle will be fought primarily on phones.

Of course, if Donald Trump actually wins in November, he’ll be in that 2020 race. Who knows what he’ll do or say at that point to stay in office.