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Marketplace Morning Report

Candidates are hoping you’ll buy their rhetoric — as well as their merchandise

Candace Manriquez Wrenn and Rose Conlon Oct 7, 2019
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Democratic presidential candidates on stage at the second round of primary debates in July in Detroit.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Most of us can identify a standard commercial and we usually know someone is trying to sell us something. But what happens when the “product” is a political candidate and the “ad” is a tweet, or Facebook post?

In her new book “Political Brands,” Stetson University law professor and campaign finance expert Ciara Torres-Spelliscy says that candidates are increasingly using commercial techniques like repetition and micro-targeting in order to sell themselves and their policy positions.

Torres-Spelliscy says President Trump used political branding successfully during the 2016 presidential campaign.

“One of the ways that he was able to raise an enormous amount of money was by selling his red “Make America Great Again” hats,” she said.

The 2020 Democratic candidates are getting in on the action. Elizabeth Warren has “Warren Has a Plan For That” merchandise, Julián Castro’s merch store features “Adiós Trump” apparel, Pete Buttigieg’s “Pete for America” campaign site showcases totes and hoodies with the phonetic spelling of his name, “Boot Edge Edge” while Andrew Yang is selling hats that read “MATH,” which stands for “Make America Think Harder.”

President Trump has recently started branding some of his own commentary on impeachment proceedings. His campaign raised $13 million in the two days after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced an impeachment inquiry, and is now selling “witch hunt” merchandise.

“You can buy a “witch hunt” beer koozie, if you wish. Rhetorically, he’s also branding impeachment as undemocratic and a coup,” said Torres-Spelliscy, who added that Democrats were branding impeachment in other ways.

“The Democrats are trying to brand impeachment as defensive democracy. They think of themselves as standing up for the rule of law and the integrity of the next election,” she said.

One of the biggest shifts in marketing and branding in the last presidential election was the shift to increased use of social media to hammer home policy agendas.

“One thing you saw in the 2016 campaign, especially on the Trump side, is they spent a lot of money, to the tune of $100 million, just on Facebook ads alone,” Torres-Spelliscy said.

There are a lot of potential viewers of such ads. A 2018 Pew Research Center study found that the typical American used three of the eight most popular social platforms, with roughly two-thirds of U.S. adults (68%) reporting that they are Facebook users, and roughly 75% of those users signing in to Facebook on a daily basis.

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