Flashback: Reagan Vs. Mondale And The Power Of Consumer Insights

By SuperSpy Comment

Tonight it’s Sarah Palin versus Joe Biden. Hot. In 1984, it would have been George H. W. Bush and Geraldine Ferraro. Lets take a deeper flashback to ’84. It was the year that the Marines pulled out of Beirut, Lebanon. Punky Brewster premiered. Michael Jackson’s hair caught fire during the shooting of Pepsi commercial and the first Apple Macintosh went on sale.

In 1984, Richard “Dick” Wirthlin was the baller to beat. Wirthlin had been named 1981’s “Adman of the Year” and was the president of Decision/Making/Information (bought in 2004 by Harris Interactive). He was charged with determining the advertising strategy for Reagan in the last two crucial weeks of the 1984 campaign.

Wirthlin knew early polls by Gallup and Harris had Reagan leading Mr. Where’s The Beef aka Walter Mondale by about ten percent, but that the distance was closing in early July 1984. By July 24th, Reagan’s lead had dropped to just two percentage points.

Wirthlin put together a research team: John Fiedler; Lesley Bahner, VP of The Qualitative Consultancy and John Moss and advertising consultant, as well as Tom Reynolds, President of the Institute for Consumer Research. The newly formed political Voltron went about collecting data, in the framework of the public’s owns words, to help Wirthlin fashion a campaign that would directly speak to citizens. Focus groups, small interviews and one hundred, one-on-ones were kicked off.

The MECCAS model (“Means-End Conceptualization of the Components of Advertising Stragety) was dusted off for use. MECCAS is umbrella term that refers to a “set of methods for interviewing
consumers about the reasons for their decision choice and then interpreting those responses in terms of linkages between outcomes.” Sounds boring, yeah? But, wait…


So, the team starts focusing in on two things: the campaign theme and the attack theme. Think of two brands going to war – Apple and Microsoft. Apple has been a host of slogans over the years, most center around the idea of individuality and creativity like the iconic 90s/2000s “Think different.” Now, we have the new attack theme from Microsoft – “I’m a PC and I’ve been stereotyped.”

Same thing for Mondale and Reagan. Where was Reagan going to attack? Did he need a new theme? The research findings showed Walter Mondale had a lock on domestic social issues. Ah, those Democrats… Yet, his economic proposals were fuzzy in the mind of voters. They only new that Mondale was for a “balanced budget.” Not much to go on. Meanwhile, Reagan’s economic issues came across load and clear such as belief in reducing waste and government spending. Ah, those Republicans… In domestic social issues? He was the rich guy for big business interests. Yet, neither candidate ruled a gray space – a better America; a secure future for the children, etc.

The Reagan Voltron team understood that the candidate needed to establish a direct link between his position and voters. It wasn’t the exact position of the candidate that mattered. It was that they were aligned with voter values overall. This was big in 1984, though now, such a concept is law. The group told Wirthlin that to win the campaign, the advertising would have to be structured around a strategy. The communications could not rest on a copywriter’s turn of phrase. Forget the specifics. It’s the big picture that counts.

Think you’re under deadline? Wirthlin had two weeks to shape a new, powerful advertising campaign for Reagan complete with broadcast. Now, we all know how that turned out.

[source 1] [source 2]