Michael Bloomberg’s paid media campaign leaned into social media strategies, but how radical was it really?
Last Saturday, I forgot to bring my headphones to the laundromat. As the laundromat’s lone customer, I didn’t have much in the way of distraction. I listened to the noises around me — the jingle of the cleaner’s keys as he walked around and the predictable hum of the washing machine.
I also heard another familiar noise — Mike Bloomberg’s voice emanating from the TV behind the front desk. In fact, I heard it every few minutes like clockwork: I’m Mike Bloomberg, and I approve this message. Yo soy Mike Bloomberg, y apruevo este mensaje.
Taking Inventory of Bloomberg’s Ad Tsunami
Mike Bloomberg’s entry into the Democratic primary was accompanied by an unprecedented volume of ads that made his face suddenly ubiquitous. As of February 28, Bloomberg had already spent more than Barack Obama’s entire 2012 presidential campaign. More than that, the ad blitz appeared to be working. According to polls, Bloomberg’s expenditures rocketed him to top-tier status right before Super Tuesday.
Technically, America’s campaign finance laws only allow an individual donor to contribute a maximum of $2,800 to an election. But FEC regulations can be circumvented by funneling money through Super PACs, which is more or less how Bloomberg has been able to pour his personal fortune into an ad campaign much bigger than those of his competitors.
Bloomberg’s historically large ad drop did not come without scrutiny. It wasn’t just the volume of ads that has raised eyebrows — it was his digital strategy.
Building “Hype” with Sponsored Content
Bloomberg’s overall campaign marketing strategy focused on sponsoring social media posts that pass for organic support. If companies flood social media with promotional material that simulates organic interest, organic interest will follow. By sponsoring hype, you can build hype.
Of course, this strategy is hardly new. For years, corporations have engineered bots, memes, and hashtags to promote their products to great success. Netflix famously spun their critically-maligned film Bird Box into gold with an avalanche of clever memes and viral challenges. But it was intriguing to see this strategy play out as part of a political instead of a corporate strategy.
Social Media Strategies Made Political
When social media becomes part of the political engine, the thin line between sponsored and unsponsored content quickly begins to fray. Companies like Twitter and Facebook cannot monitor financial transactions that take place outside their platforms. Facebook and Instagram, for instance, typically rely on influencers to self-report sponsored posts.
The Bloomberg campaign paid influencers to spread his message, but they rarely disclosed sponsored political affiliations. According to the Daily Beast, Bloomberg also contracted paid micro-influencers with 1,000+ followers but less than 100,000 at the rate of $150 per post to present Bloomberg as an electable candidate. In California, at least 500 “deputy field organizers” were paid to recommend Bloomberg on social media, regardless of who they supported privately.
He also contracted Meme 2020 to create pro-Bloomberg memes. Many popular pro-Bloomberg accounts on Instagram and Facebook avoided scrutiny by “going private”, implementing a well-known tactic among influencers —it involves posting a popular meme, switching the account to “private” and requiring users to follow the account in order to view content. Private users can reach a select audience while rejecting follow requests from journalists and concealing content from community regulators.
Bloomberg’s social media experiment prompted incredible media interest. A series of articles in and other reputable outlets followed about his “norm-destroying” ways. A recent piece in The Guardian declared that Bloomberg was “polluting the internet.”
But as both outlets admit, even if Bloomberg’s approach is unpalatable, Bloomberg’s digital media experiment did not introduce any new tactics. It did something arguably clumsier and easier. If the Cambridge Analytica scandal taught us to recognize the political muscle of big data, Bloomberg asks a more cynical question, why not take advantage of an existing economy and lean in to what influencers — in collaborations with brands — are already doing anyway?
What Now for Political Ads?
Bloomberg’s tactics for generating` hype on social media are not new to corporate strategy — but they are a novelty for political campaign strategy. New technology makes it possible, even economical to marshall armies of social media agents. But it’s one thing to generate “hype,” another to translate “hype” into real consumer interest, and yet something else to translate “hype” into democratic consensus.
Even though Bloomberg suspended his campaign after Super Tuesday, his tactics were not an abject failure. Bloomberg garnered several dozen delegates and approached twenty percent of the vote in some states. If Bloomberg could achieve these results with a relatively unpopular candidacy and just three months of campaigning, the question remains, how far can an army of social media hype men take you?
Twitter recently announced a total ban on political ads, and following the Bloomberg campaign, began to disable accounts that promote multiple candidates. Facebook and Instagram have cracked down on influencers and meme accounts suspected to be paid political plugs.
But by exploiting strategies of content creation native to the platform, Bloomberg’s media campaign made it very difficult for social media sites to enforce ad regulations, and his deputy field organizers left Facebook and Twitter scrambling to catch up. How can social media companies monitor hidden sponsored activity, when they rely on widespread practices of voluntary disclosure?
If Bloomberg’s tactics have demonstrated anything definitively, it’s that social media sites are ill-equipped arbitrate the category of “sponsored” advertisement. When following the money becomes impossible, how can anyone know if the hype is real or fake?