Who’s Winning the Ad Battle Between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders? Experts Weigh In

Industry leaders review the spots so far


Just a few months ago, the Democratic nomination looked like a cakewalk for Hillary Clinton, but Bernie Sanders has consistently gained momentum, fueled in part by emotionally powerful advertising.

As primary season heats up, both candidates are partnering with innovative agencies and embracing crowdsourced creativity to help highlight their differences while attempting to rally their party's young, enthusiastic base.

According to Kantar Media's CMAG, the Clinton campaign has boosted its overall TV ad spend 45 percent since the New Hampshire primary, while Sanders has been outspending Clinton by nearly two to one in key areas of states like Nevada, where polls show the two in a virtual tie ahead of today's caucus there.

They're skilled campaigners, but how do Clinton and Sanders stack up as advertisers? How are they approaching ads, creatively and conceptually, and what sort of personal brand are they promoting?

Adweek asked a panel of veteran advertising experts from around the country to weigh in on the commercials produced so far by Clinton and Sanders. (We plan to visit the Republican field from a similar lens soon, once the crowd of contenders has slimmed to a clear set of finalists.)

Our panel:

  • Jeff Goodby, co-founder and chairman, Goodby Silverstein & Partners (San Francisco). Those outside the ad industry might know Goodby best for creating the "Got Milk?" tagline.
  • Kim Getty, president, Deutsch (Los Angeles).
  • Lenny Stern, co-founder and CEO, SS+K (New York City). SS+K served as the youth agency for President Obama's campaigns in 2008 and 2012.
  • Leeann Leahy, CEO, The Via Agency (Portland, Maine).

Here are the Democratic contenders' ads, and what our panel of experts had to say about them:

Bernie Sanders: 'America'

Jeff Goodby: It's the most successful of the bunch. His ads reflect the best parts of his side without being dissonant from what you hear in his speeches.

Kim Getty: He's coming from Vermont, the home of Ben & Jerry's and organic honey; he's sort of the classic underdog. I think that gives him a lot more liberty in what he has to say than in an established leader like Hillary. … You see that coming through in the reception to his message.

Leeann Leahy

Leann Leahy: Sanders is running ads about America, while Hillary is running ads about Hillary and what she can do. Americans are so used to ads slamming the other candidate, and I understand that polls all say they work. But you can see the difference in this ad, which concerns possibilities and optimism. It's inspirational.

Lenny Stern: Sanders' advertising and communications are tapping into what people are feeling. I would argue that Hillary's ads to date have been tapping into what people [actually] want and what needs to get done.

Hillary Clinton: 'Children' (Agency: Droga5)

Stern: "America" and "Children" are not saying, "Hey, I've been around for a while, look at my experience." They're talking about the commitment and passion for solving a problem that the candidates have had for their whole lives. Both are very emotional.

Jeff Goodby

Leahy: I think there is certainly more of a creative edge—a narrative that is not just sound bites—woven through. This is a step in an interesting direction, but there's more room to go.

Goodby: I don't know if Hillary has hit her stride yet in terms of tone. I liked this ad a lot, but as I watched it I thought, look how she's changed over the years. Did she get more strident, more battle-tested in a bad way? None of us would stand up well to that sort of scrutiny. She was a little less gentle as she got older.

Bernie Sanders: 'Together' (Agency: Human)

Leahy: People are engaging by finding inspiration in Sanders' ads and practical information in Clinton's ads. There's a lot of talk of her depth in terms of acumen, while he has a deeper sense of idealism.

Getty: A more emotionally driven approach just captures us more often than a more rationally driven approach.

Bernie Sanders: 'The Problem'

Hillary Clinton: 'Single Issue'

Leahy: [The negative ads] feel more run-of-the-mill and less optimistic in capturing the imagination of the American people. The Droga5 ad ("Children") and "America" told a more complete story.

Getty: [Sanders is] using the classic enemy-driven approach, where he's taking on Wall Street and he's taking on the wealthy. I think it's easier to get people on board when you're doing that sometimes than even when you're saying what you're for.

Lenny Stern

Stern: Bernie has over 30 years of speaking and focusing on one issue, and that has been a proxy for people who have been frustrated by where things are in their lives. Now people take a breath and say, "What will you get done?" That will be Bernie's challenge.

Goodby: Hillary is probably the best-qualified candidate in the country right now, so she shouldn't turn into an attack dog. Addressing Bernie in a more conciliatory way would reduce him to being an opponent with a less impressive resume.

Bernie Sanders: 'It's Not Over'

Getty: I think that first-person storytelling is very powerful. It's a different approach than the one Hillary is employing, where we see her talking to the camera and giving her perspective on things. It doesn't surprise me at all that this ad is connecting with people. It breaks the norms of political advertising, and I think that there's a lot to be said for that. [Sanders] didn't even create that ad himself. It was submitted by his supporters and then he sort of put his muscle behind it. I think that's what the best brands do: they give themselves over to their fans to speak on their behalf, and I think it's clearly working [for him].

Stern: Hillary's more recent spots are emotional ads depicting real humans going through struggles and related fears, then connecting them to her as someone who has attacked those problems before and has a record of doing that. Bernie's Erica Garner ad is very similar.

Hillary Clinton: 'Fighting for You'

Stern: Her ads have been particularly effective in reminding people that, ultimately, the only thing that solves their frustrations is getting things done. [Clinton] is someone who has been fighting against many barriers. Her more recent communications are speaking about how we need to address the "rigged system," but if that's all we fix, that alone will not be enough.

Kim Getty

Getty: Her brand is experience. She has a very robust resume, she's accomplished a ton and her work really feels like it's delivering on that. It's very consistent. The thing that struck me, and I think this is quite a good thing, is how true she has been to who she is and her message.

Leahy: Even Trump is creating the illusion of showing Americans what it could be like with him at the helm. Whether you choose to live in that America is up to you.

Stern: I'm a big believer that ads, communications and all sorts of engagement matter, whether we're electing a president, engaging with young people or selling a product. But frankly, I start from the position that the advertising to date in this campaign has been its least important component—no offense to myself and my colleagues. We're all prognosticators, but it's important for viewers to know that we're not even at intermission yet. As consumers and voters, we shouldn't sell the candidates short.

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