The US presidential elections are taking place this year. The Republican champion, Donald Trump, is still waiting to see the appropriate Democratic contender, yet to be chosen at the party's primary elections.
One of the top-ranking candidates among the Democrats is Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire and former New York mayor, also the oldest and the wealthiest of all candidates.
However, his age is not an obstacle for him to realize that nowadays, in the digital age, the main battle is fought in the online realm. With virtually boundless funds at his disposal, he is one of the most active politicians on social networks and currently runs the most noteworthy campaign.
As suggested by Wired in its article The Influencer Election is Here, Michael Bloomberg’s presidential campaign had paid social media influencers “to make him seem cool.”
He hired the influencers with the army of millions of followers. Bloomberg’s campaign is not the first to seek credibility from online influencers, nor will it be the last.
Startups and strategists across the country are angling to be part of this new wave of political advertising.
The 2020 election will, unfortunately, most certainly feature even more social media ads from fitness bloggers, Instagram-famous dogs, YouTubers, and even more of their varied, viral ilk.
The 2016 presidential election was a demonstration of how candidates and their supporters could harness social media to spread information (and misinformation).
This year, they’re enlisting influencers and meme-makers more directly in the effort.
The latest Bloomberg meme onslaught is the brainchild of a new company called Meme2020, led by Mick Purzycki, who has plenty of experience making low-quality posts incredibly popular as the leader of Jerry Media, the marketing company behind @FuckJerry
Before it conscripted Meme2020, Bloomberg first went through a branded content agency called Tribe, which solicited pitches from its “creators” and “influencers” for images and videos supporting Bloomberg’s candidacy in exchange for $150.
The regulation in this domain is still in the grey zone. Unlike commercial posts that are subject to regulations, political ads are still insufficiently regulated.
Anyone following a Kardashian or two will notice an #ad tag on their posts shilling laxatives or prescription medication.
The FEC hasn’t laid out a coherent set of rules for internet-based political advertising, beyond requiring certain disclosures.
Individual platforms have been crafting their own policies around political ads. TikTok, for example, recently banned political ads altogether.
Other companies mostly play safe, showing a great sense of caution.
Mae Karwowski, the CEO of influencer agency Obvious.ly, is also wary of jumping into the political arena.“Worst-case scenario, you get someone who doesn’t care about politics, talking because they’re getting paid. That’s such a disservice to the country.”
Some companies opt for non-monetary compensation to influencers, giving them an access to politicians, which is sometimes more effective than a monetary compensation.
Have them go to a VIP meet-and-greet, have them take a selfie and ask a question just like you would an influential leader of a union, someone who has a real audience and sway over their community, not as an ad unit.
Progressives need to catch up to their right-wing opponents when it comes to comprehending how to use online influence.
In general, the Republicans are doing a better job than the Democrats at digital marketing and understanding how the landscape’s changing. President Trump as a pioneer of leveraging online influencers to build an audience.
Will the American people warm to the idea that the beautiful people and weird-looking cats they follow on social media are also sources of political content? Anyhow, the impact of influencer opinion on voters may far exceed the amounts paid to place them in media.
Some candidates have managed to mold themselves into influencers, such as the Democratic Party representative, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who has built her own brand (AOC) owing to her eye-catching presence at Twitter and Instagram and her numerous followers.
But politicians with digital charisma like AOC’s are still rare.
Last, but not the least, the real question is whether voters will embrace this kind of advertising as much as campaigns hope they will.
Political marketing in Serbia
This kind of political marketing in Serbia is still undeveloped, for a number of reasons. The first is perhaps related to political culture and literacy.
Although the number of social network users constantly grows and we catch up and even outrun the developed countries in this area, they are still mostly used for entertainment and fun.
On the other hand, political parties, save a few exceptions, have still not fully recognized and captured the power of digital marketing.
There is a clear lack of professionally crafted campaigns and legit messages, and political players themselves are aware that Serbian electorate is still not easy to disentangle from TV, which is the main source of news and advertising.
There is an obvious lack of professional staff in local politicians' online teams, which cannot be justified by insufficient funds, considering pretty low fees of local online promotions.
The exception in this particular instance is the ruling party that mastered all of the manipulation and persuasion techniques, including digital media, and also the party "Dosta je bilo" (It's been enough), which is taking a cutting-edge approach to their online presence. Others are either below average or not worth mentioning.
The situation in Serbia is similar with the right-wing parties, as their campaigns resonate better, primarily due to precisely targeted audience, and also due to simple and concise messages within their rather poor but emotionally-charged political agendas.
However, something critical is overlooked here.
Have the elections ever been so aloof from the basic principles of democracy?
Has there ever been less ideology and more propaganda and manipulation?
What is the role of traditional media?
Can a man who wants to make an informed decision derive more costs or benefits from keeping abreast of digital media before the elections?
Similar questions will gain momentum in the years to come and with new voters and generations that will use the Internet as the sole source of information, even in Serbia.
Until then, I might try to follow Baka Prase (young Serbian youtube influencer), to check if a subliminal message emerges - faster, stronger, better (political slogan of the ruling party).
This post has been inspired by the Wired magazine's article "The Influencer Election is Here" the chunks of which have been used here.