New York City’s Mayoral Primary kept politicos interested for the last several months for many reasons. The end of the Bloomberg era and the likelihood that the city would have a Democratic mayor for the first time in over a decade was one, as was the slow flame out of former front runner Christine Quinn. And there was, of course, this guy. But after Public Advocate Bill de Blasio’s sweeping victory, the most interesting thing to me is his campaign’s against-the-grain strategy of mass appeal over microtargeting. Is de Blasio’s “macrotargeting” a blip on the radar, or a strategy worth studying?
What made de Blasio’s campaign different was his eschewing of direct mail in favor of television ads. Specifically, one television ad – the now-famous spot with his son Dante talking about how the city’s “stop and frisk” policy affects young men of color like him. The campaign decided early on to go big on TV, skimping on nearly all other campaign expenditures and abandoning mail altogether. They ended up outspending their rivals by over $200,000 on television and pushing the “Dante” ad out to as wide an audience as they could.
If you don’t work in politics, this decision might not seem strange at all. But in political campaigns the tide has been running hard in the opposite direction of de Blasio’s strategy for years now. The trend has been microtargeting, or slicing the electorate up into smaller and smaller pieces and then hitting those targeted populations with messaging specifically designed to move them, whether with traditional direct mail or digital ads. This tactic seemed to reach a fever pitch in the 2012 Presidential Election, with both the Obama and Romney campaigns going to great lengths to microtarget voters. To see de Blasio win so overwhelmingly while employing the exact opposite strategy is a bit jarring and opens up several important questions for the direction of campaign tactics.
Of course, certain caveats apply here. Running a local race is very different from a national race, even in New York City. The demographic and ideological differences you encounter neighborhood to neighborhood and borough to borough are serious, but nothing compared to the disconnect between liberals in San Francisco and evangelicals in Mississippi. Having said that, de Blasio’s strategy does align with something I have always believed as a campaign media consultant – that the most powerful, emotional way to reach voters is on television. But then what about the years and years of microtargeting success stories?
The answer is that every campaign is different and a one size fits all approach doesn’t work. Candidates and consultants have to craft their strategies to work in their particular media market and their particular voting population. What worked for de Blasio might not work for someone else. But the key is to always look for the most efficient and powerful way to spread your message and not be locked down into one communications vehicle over another. Flexibility is the hey, whether you are talking to a tiny segmented audience or a massive general one.