Russian Ads and Soap: Lessons for Marketers

Every time I read yet another story about how the Russians managed to “throw” the U.S. Presidential Election with a $100,000 advertising budget on Facebook, I honestly burn with jealousy.

In fact, I’d bet many marketers feel the same. I can only imagine the discussion in meetings, conference calls, and in confrontations at conferences:

‘Why don’t my Facebook ads deliver like that?’

‘How come you can’t do that for me?’

And in the tradition of Make Me a Viral, Digital or Mobile First:

‘Get me one of those!’

In pursuit of,  ‘those,’ I turned to a peerless raconteur: my dear friend, teacher, and media guru, Chief Digital Officer Rob Norman of Group M.

We discussed two main categories:

  • Ad spend on Facebook and its implications
  • Political Advertising versus Product Advertising, understanding that both are, in fact, Brandcentric

Let’s begin with the recent ad spend report by CNN (hopefully not Fake News):

What Russian trolls could have bought for $100,000 on Facebook

“According to Facebook, someone buying an ad for $33 (the average cost suggested by $100,000 spent on roughly 3,000 ads) could expect to reach between 11,000-63,000 users in one day…For $1,000 a day it’s possible to reach between 8,900 and 35,000 women aged between 22-45 in Wisconsin who ‘have expressed an interest in or like pages related to Hillary Clinton.’ Swap out Clinton for Donald Trump and you can reach 24,000-120,000 people matching that criteria each day.”

Now while the number of people reached doesn’t really seem that big in terms of a national election, think about the small margins of victory in county after county that President Trump won, delivering the electoral victory that “trumped” (sorry!) the popular vote.

But there is more. As Rob points out:

“The fact that [the Russians] may have run 3,000 different ads for $100,000 means that almost certainly what they were doing was testing as many executions as they could to see what shared most frequently…because $100,000 in it of itself doesn’t buy significant reach of any kind.”

We know this is consistent with best practices. Rob explains:

“Facebook’s creative people will tell you it’s actually a very good idea to make very fractional copy to reveal which of them produces the most shares or most actions. Then they’re advised to spend…What [the Russians] were doing was effectively looking at microtargeting a whole tier   of different messages to see how they could get them to spread… There are actions to test infinite amounts of creative within the system.”

So far so good. We all know this to be true. In fact, this has nothing to do with Facebook per se, but is time-tested and true Direct Marketing professionalism. These themes are articulated in the book Being Direct: Making Advertising Pay, written by my mentor, the legendary Lester Wunderman. Lester outlines his 19 Principles of Success, but I will share just two, wondering if the Russians read them as well:

  • Direct Marketing Is a Strategy, Not a Tactic
  • Answer the Question “Why Should I?”

And there you have it.

The Russian marketers elevated their tactics to a clear strategy, and gave people a reason to believe why they should have voted for Donald Trump. Yet the question that must be raised then is…why only $100,000? If they were testing their way in as recommended, how did they manage to do such damage with such a small investment?

Hold that question.

Let’s address the issue of selling politicians versus selling soap, because I’m still jealous.

To begin with, as I have written and shared before, President Trump is as much a Brand as is any other product, service, or even country, and can be studied and understood in much the same way. But the motivations, and therefore the implications (in this case, election engagements and actions) are obviously way more impactful than the Brand of cereal you buy.

I turned to Rob again:

“Somehow presidential elections and enormously important social issues turn out to be more important than soap. After the 2008 election, I was on stage on Ad Tech in NY and asked, ‘What can brands learn from Obama’s social media strategy?’…They can learn, if they can invest in their brand the same importance as the future of our country, a great deal. And if they’re selling soaps, they probably can’t.”

The basic learning is clear, Direct Marketing 101: commercial Brands have to be ‘elected’ every day. But the framework, if you will, is not in the same universe, because as Rob points out:

“The less controversial or the less polarizing something is, the more money you have to spend.”

Specifically in terms of the Russian issue, Rob says:

“Part of the premise of what went on in those election communications was that you had to create messaging that in it of itself was untrue. Brand advertisers tend to get into trouble…for example, let’s say you ran an ad for a Brand of toothpaste. Instead of saying that your brand made your breath fresher, you suggested enhanced sexual outcomes for users of that product. My guess is that would be a highly influential piece of communication.”

He sums it all up:

“There’s a difference between a misjudgment and a deliberate manipulation. These were 3,000 pieces of mud thrown at a wall. Some of them stuck. Those would have contained a grain of truth or at least a narrative that was plausible to people that aren’t inconvenienced by facts. Brand advertising does not work like this; only the extremely good, bad, funny or offensive gets shared organically. It’s hard to be extremely good or funny and no one want to be extremely bad or offensive. As a result the only way to increase reach is to spend money.”


“Political advertising and brand advertising have few parallels. Generally speaking the future of the country is more emotive than the performance of deodorant and ironically brands are held to a higher standard than politicians in respect of the accuracy of their claims.”

One can only wonder… what would happen if Brands sponsored the next U.S. Election?

Bottom line: truth alone just isn’t that interesting, and civil discourse just not that compelling. Brands have to work harder, be more creative, tell better stories…and yes, spend more to have an impact. Because as Rob ends:

“Good astounding and contagious lies have a grain of truth in them, like all great jokes have a grain of truth of them. They have to tie into the basic emotion.”

Sadly, despite our great advances in technology we are still left with this thought from the beginning of the last century. As you will note, the source and its influence provide an appropriately ironic end to my Ramble:

“A lie told often enough becomes the truth.”
Vladimir Lenin

No matter how much or little you spend.

What do you think?





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