Mike Bloomberg and his presidential campaign respect the fundamental equation governing the modern internet: immodesty and conflict equal attention. And attention equals power.
Since declaring his campaign late last fall, the former New York mayor has used his billions to spend more than his competitors in an effort to hack the nation's attention. It seems to work - this column is still more proof.
There are its ubiquitous TV, YouTube and Facebook ads. There are his tweets, many of which are pretty weird to generate the right amount of viral confusion or are pretty pugnacious towards Donald Trump for provoking the ire of the presidential Twitter thread. Then there are the influencers. Starting this week, the Bloomberg campaign enlisted help from a number of popular memes makers to create sponsored Instagram content for the candidate. The deployment was extremely efficient, generating praise and contempt. The report doesn't really matter - what matters is people were talking about Mr Bloomberg, a candidate who skipped Iowa and New Hampshire and is a top contender for the nomination nonetheless. democrat.
These extremely in-line tactics fit with the larger Bloomberg campaign philosophy, which resembles a control group experiment for a study posing: "What if you run a presidential campaign so optimized for efficiency and reach that you cut completely the human element of the campaign? " As my newsroom colleague Matt Flegenheimer wrote in January, Mr Bloomberg doesn't really play chess, "he's specifically working to bury the board with a money gusher so powerful that everyone forgets how the game has always been played in the first place." "
This is certainly true from a media buying perspective. Mr Bloomberg has blanketed the airwaves with TV and radio commercials, spend more than $ 250 million since the start of his campaign in November. Online campaign is even more prolific - NBC News calculated that he's spent over a million dollars a day on average over the past two weeks on Facebook. He's spent so much that marketers suggest the flood of ads could jack up the prices of the Trump campaign and look away from the president's own punching campaign to own voters' news feeds.
At the heart of these tactics is a real sexual immorality that fits perfectly not only with politics but also with the Internet in general. Mr Bloomberg doesn't have to apologize - and isn't afraid to hide - the money he spends. This transactional approach fits perfectly with the online influencer culture, where young internet celebrities are often not too careful about accepting money for approve suspicious products. In the influencers of the Instagram meme, the former mayor seems to have found a similar mindset to attention economy capitalists. "I'd be down - bread is bread," a teenager who runs the @BigDadWhip meme page, told The Times Taylor Lorenz when asked to post sponsored content on behalf of the candidate.
On Twitter, where some Democratic hopefuls have adopted a “they go low, we go high” mentality, Bloombergians have instead chosen to wade through the mud and grapple with Mr. Trump's Twitter thread. The strategy plays controversy at every opportunity available to attract attention.
After the news broke, the President mocked Mr. Bloomberg's height Super Bowl Interview with Bloomberg campaign spokesperson Julie Wood returned with his own misleading line: “The president is lying. He's a pathological liar who lies about everything: his fake hair, his obesity, and his spray-on tan. "
The back and forth generated a round of midsize controversy and news, the subtext of which was Mr Bloomberg as Mr Trump's worthy training partner. Tweets and chyrons of cables flashed with the name of the former mayor. Media won. Mission accomplished.
What the Bloomberg campaign seems to have bought into is that, when you look at the powerful combination of content creation and shamelessness, any reaction it elicits is a good reaction. This strategy gives a candidate some freedom when you don't care what people think of you - as long as they think of you.
Take Mr Bloomberg's cheeky spending, which prompted claims that he is a oligarch try to get around democracy by buy the presidency. Many candidates would be on the defensive in the face of such speculation. Mr. Bloomberg is unfazed. We do not care?! At least he's in the conversation. More than that, the conversation is now centered on the idea that he could very well win.
All sounds Trumpian because it is. The Trump campaign was not denied in 2016 and beyond over his plan to “flood the area” with garbage or rage. The strategy worked in part because it engaged and energized its base. And, like Sean Illing detailed recently at Vox, he tapped into a media ecosystem designed to pay attention to lies (in order to debunk them) and weirdness (because it's entertaining or worthy of interest).
What remains to be seen is how Mr Bloomberg will handle criticism in the fight for attention. The president could strike back at criticism - high or low - since he isn't embarrassed by shame or decency. Trump supporters love him because cruelty is the point. But Bloomberg won't be able to make fun of critics of his beloved arrest and search policies (for which he recently apologized), for example. Unlike Mr. Trump, there are probably lines that Mr. Bloomberg will not cross.
Other Democratic candidates have tried to apply Mr. Trump's media hacking lessons - "I'd be lying if I said I didn't study some of his approaches with the media and what worked, which didn't. 'didn't work,' Lis Smith, a senior advisor to Pete Buttigieg, recently admitted. But few are able to reproduce the tactic. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez heads a similar playbook online, but hers is much more authentic - the product of being a millennial who is inherently very good at social media and also happens to be a member of Congress.
The Bloomberg campaign is much less organic. This week's Instagram memes campaign is a prime example. While this was a brazen attempt by the 77-year-old billionaire to buy out teen influencers, the campaign perfectly exploited the attention by being impenetrable. “This is the most successful ad I have ever published,” said one of the influencers told the Times. "I think this is largely due to the confusion of people, whether it is real or not."
Release some memes. Sow a slight chaos in the chronology. Send reporters on a wild geese hunt. Meanwhile, this happens:
Who cares about inorganic patterns if the attention they generate is very organic?
The strategy is, as we see, politically effective. Just ask Deval Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts. Patrick and Bloomberg announced their campaigns around the same time. They have a fairly comparable history of government. One struggled to raise funds, chose not to commit, and passed out into the depths of darkness. The other, the one with the war chest and shamelessness, is still racing.
Attention is like television airtime in a battlefield state: there is a finite amount of it. For Democrats whose primary interest is to defeat Donald Trump at all costs, this is exciting. But the strategy is also deeply cynical, exhausting, and potentially damaging to those of us who have gone to consume it. For citizens looking for a movement or big structural change or even just a real vision for the country's future, the strategy is daunting - just another brazen attempt to appeal to the lowest instincts. Internet common denominator that leaves a sinking feeling that Shameless memes, Twitter dunks and toxic screams in the algorithmic void have become politics as usual.
Or maybe it always has been. After all, what is politics if not a long, well-funded attempt to grab people's attention?
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