How President Trump’s Covid-19 Diagnosis Will Shape Campaign Messaging as Election Day Nears

Ad spend fluctuates in the final weeks

Trump and Biden
Marketing experts say Biden and Trump have a new opportunity to shape messaging around the president's Covid-19 diagnosis. Trent Joaquin/Getty Images
Headshot of Sara Jerde

President Donald Trump is back at the White House, plans to hit the campaign trail again soon and fully intends to participate in the second presidential debate set for next Thursday, two weeks after he went public with this Covid-19 diagnosis.

The president’s diagnosis and how Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s campaign continues to respond to it, will shape the final 27 days of the 2020 campaign, marketing experts told Adweek.

The two candidates, perhaps the most crucial brands of 2020, are navigating the same tricky questions as other major advertisers this year: When do you pause a campaign? What is a brand-safe environment? And what do you say when the news cycle (and critical health advice) is changing so quickly?

Both candidates’ spending fluctuated immediately after Trump shared his diagnosis early Friday on Twitter, but in a pattern similar to the week before.

The Biden campaign went from spending $3.9 million on broadcast TV on Friday to $1.9 million on Saturday, before increasing again on Sunday to $4.2 million—similar to his spend the prior week, according to data from Advertising Analytics.

The Trump campaign spent $2.4 million on broadcast TV on Friday and $1.2 million on both Saturday and Sunday—again in keeping with his allocation the week before.

As for digital ads, both campaigns decreased their spend last Wednesday, when both candidates were getting plenty of earned media following Tuesday night’s debate, which was watched by an estimated 73 million people. The digital spend increased Friday for the Trump campaign and Saturday for the Biden campaign.

Biden’s campaign has focused its social media spend on getting out the vote. Experts Adweek spoke with said the campaign needs to be more specific.

“Marketing strategists in other industries know that there’s no deadline for making an emotional appeal to someone and that every call to action should be paired with a why,” said Anjelica Triola, director of marketing at the progressively minded consultancy Wethos. “They’re still failing to hit these basic, foundational principles of good advertising.”

The Trump campaign has invested heavily in social channels in the past week, spending $488,000 on Facebook Friday before nearly tripling that to $1.3 million on Sunday, according to the social media giant.

In the coming days, the Trump campaign will likely focus on reaching suburban and college-educated women who, recent polling suggests, are leaning toward Biden, said David Schweidel, marketing professor at Emory University.

Biden should be careful with his messaging, Schweidel said, keeping a positive tone. Indeed, Biden’s campaign said on Saturday it would pause negative ads while the president was ill.

“Biden’s message of unity is one that can resonate well right now—not just with regards to getting us all past the current pandemic, but also with regards to race relations, the economy and the Supreme Court,” he added.

“My plea to the Biden campaign: Have a bold, clear point of view,” said Triola. “Tell us what you stand for. Make it short, succinct, powerful. Brave. Give us something exciting to vote for rather than just asking us to vote on continuing to tell us why Trump is bad.”

As for Trump, he can speak about a very specific experience Biden cannot: “He could pivot in the sense of acknowledging the virus. And the suffering that it comes with could generate a lot of sympathy,” said Alixandra Barasch, assistant professor of marketing at NYU Stern.

Viamedia president and CEO Mark Lieberman added that Trump’s “most effective message is to address Covid and his newly gained personal understanding of the disease.”


@SaraJerde sara.jerde@adweek.com Sara Jerde is publishing editor at Adweek, where she covers traditional and digital publishers’ business models. She also oversees political coverage ahead of the 2020 election.
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