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What US election trends mean for the future of digital media


Victoria Usher

Published On:

November 12, 2020

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What US election trends mean for the future of digital media

This year’s US presidential election was unlike any other, and not just because of the nail-biting wait for its result. High-octane campaigns held during a pandemic and ongoing global upheaval made for an exhilarating race to the White House that caught the world’s attention. Strong voter passions drove the largest turnout since 1900 when rates hit almost 74%; with 160 million ballots taking overall participation to nearly 70% of eligible voters.

Brands and technology companies also found themselves operating in a fast-evolving digital media environment, with consumer priorities and expectations rapidly shifting. And the new approaches this sparked indicate that the shape of online political advertising and interactions could be set for permanent change.

Big tech clamps down on misinformation

With a rising focus on digital media accuracy, it’s no surprise that factual content was a key theme before and after the election. Over the last few years, concerns about the impact of fake news and misinformation have increased significantly; with US adults citing unreliable content as one the biggest issues facing the country in 2019 and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg facing congressional scrutiny over political ad policies.

Ahead of polling day, findings that 58% of Americans were anxious about voting confusion caused by ‘made-up’ information meant determination to maximise credibility was stronger than ever. Speaking at an event for the International Press Institute, Sally Buzbee — Senior Vice President for the Associated Press (AP) — even urged journalists to apply extra vigour in verifying sources and “stand up for facts.”

But what proved most interesting was how tech giants answered this call. Major social media forces such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube not only established task forces for addressing potentially misleading content, but also took swift action; including adding warning labels to posts declaring early victory and factual updates to election-related videos.

These steps offer a powerful signal that the movement towards greater online transparency is growing. As social platforms increasingly respond to consumer need for better clarity and accountability, progress in enhancing digital media quality and trust is set to gain momentum; bringing benefits for brands, publishers, and audiences alike.

Brand campaigns put voters centre stage

References to topical events in digital advertising are nothing new, but this year brought a distinct uptick in brands concentrating campaigns squarely on the presidential race. Setting product and service promotion aside, multiple big names opted to build their messaging around consumer empowerment and inspiring audiences to have their say.

Nike’s ‘You can’t stop our voice’ campaign, for instance, recruited an array of high-profile athletes — including LeBron James, Naomi Osaka, Odell Beckham Jr, and Sue Bird — to motivate voters; an initiative supported by its additional partnership with Lyft – offering  discounted transport in areas where reaching polling stations is challenging. Reddit’s first ever marketing effort ‘Up the vote’ encouraged users to transfer their enthusiasm for voting on its site to the real world, while multiple other brands – from Absolut and Johnny Walker to Under Armour – also devoted their creative resources to driving ballots.

This change in gear comes as brands increasingly recognise the need to understand and align with the issues that audiences care about. At a time when 58% of global consumers want brands to be a positive force in shaping culture, and 39% are turned off by self-serving communications, brands are reorienting campaigns to place a stronger emphasis on meeting consumer needs and developing meaningful connections. But the rising emphasis on brand purpose has also raised questions about linking brand marketing to political views.

To take a political stance, or not?

For political parties, the election has sparked greater awareness that harnessing the power of online ads can be highly effective and even crucial. See recent comments by congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez on the value of extending ad campaigns beyond TV and mail to reach diverse audiences online, especially younger voters. But when it comes to wider advertising, it has also divided opinion on whether brands should take a political stance.

Some industry figures feel showcasing political preferences is vital for brands to win consumer confidence. For example, Rani Patel Williams, Co-founder of Livity, argues the case is clear cut; “you can’t exist successfully while disengaging from wider societal issues”. Yet those on the opposing side, such as Co-founder and Chief Executive of The Beyond Collective, Zaid Al-Zaidy, believe this could have negative consequences; asserting that brands “risk alienating customers who don’t subscribe to their political points of view” and harming business prospects.

For now, the jury on how far brands can afford to take their political stance remains out. But as consumer demand for brands to illustrate genuine commitment to key causes and issues increases, it’s likely the future outlook will see businesses moving to strike a balance between expressing their purpose and overt political statements.

Consumer needs, habits and attitudes have changed dramatically over the course of 2020, and varying digital media measures around the election evidence the effect this is already having on brands and tech players. But as highlighted by Allen Adamson, Associate Professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business and Co-founder of Metaforce, it’s probable the key lesson companies will take forward is relatively simple. With a brighter spotlight on reliable content, meaningful marketing and honesty, what ultimately matters most will be doing “the right thing”, no matter which way the political winds are blowing.

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