Vladimir Putin may not be bounding on stage to accept them any time soon. Regardless, all the ad industry’s marketing campaign awards should go to the Russian leader for his spectacular 2016 election hack, according to an international alliance of advertising creatives.
The anonymous group calls itself Project Meddle, and it claims to have already paid to enter a portfolio describing Russia’s election activities to all the industry award shows: the Webbys, the One Show, the Cannes Lions, the Clios and the Addys.
“Like it or not, Russia created the most impactful campaign of the century,” the Project Meddlers wrote. “As marketing professionals who spend their days using these same tools, we find ourselves humbled by the skill, innovation, and impact of Russia’s election-meddling campaign. And not in a good way.”
Their tongues may be firmly in their cheeks, but the Project Meddlers have a point. As they note, Russia’s involvement has already produced numbers that would be considered eye-popping at any ad agency: 760 million clicks on certified Russian fake news stories distributed via Twitter and Facebook (enough for everyone in the U.S. to have clicked three times), 288 million Twitter impressions, and a practically infinite amount of media coverage. Plus, y’know, one very Russia-friendly U.S. president.
The genius of Project Meddle is to look at Putin the same as it would any client: he had a brand that was failing and fading on the international stage. In the years prior to 2016, despite its guerilla campaigns in Ukraine, Russia simply wasn’t being taken seriously as a global power. The brand’s glory days in the Cold War, all that spying and skullduggery, were a distant memory.
Back then it was harder to ignore the fact that Russia’s economy was smaller than Italy’s. It relied, then as now, on a handful of increasingly unnecessary fossil fuels. In John McCain’s famous phrase, Russia was “a gas station masquerading as a country.” No gas station has ever been in greater need of a marketing makeover.
Like any good ad campaign, the meddling had many outlets and years of psychological study of the target market. It wasn’t just the brute force attack on voter registration computers in many states, which is what you might expect from the old-school Cold War version of the brand. It wasn’t just the cunning email campaign (hack John Podesta’s account and get a then-trusted source, Wikileaks, to release it in batches).
It was also the Facebook posts filled with appealing lies (the Pope supports Trump! Denzel Washington supports Trump!), the subtle digs at a rival brand (“is Hillary healthy enough to handle nuclear weapons?”), the fake endorsements (it’s Jesus vs. Satan!), the tacit support for the rival brand’s other rival brand (many of us will never be able to unsee the Bernie rainbow coloring book) to divide and conquer the market.
Every conceivable angle was explored by Russian psy-ops; it even attempted to divide the left by getting activists to gather on Pokémon Go. You can practically see the CEO of the failing brand standing up and applauding when his creatives came up with that one.
And the thing is, the campaign worked. No matter what happens now, no matter how many Mueller-led indictments pile up at Trump’s door, Putin’s brand is strong. Russia will forever be the country that turned a close U.S. presidential election — making it seem not a gas station masquerading as a country, but a global force to be reckoned with for years to come. No new cola, no Apple Macintosh film by Ridley Scott, no Budweiser “wassup” commercial has ever generated this kind of brand overhaul effect.
The organizing bodies of those ad industry confabs may not agree. Then again, Russia’s campaign doesn’t just have the kind of tangible results any agency would die for — recognizing it would also be a way for those dusty industry awards shows to overhaul their own image.
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