The Russian role in the 2016 presidential election continues to unfold as investigative committees pull back additional layers of clandestine subterfuge. As American political officials and technological leaders have come under repeated fire, an anonymous group of advertising professionals suggests that the industry examine their own role in the situation. The group hoped to engage in some serious self-reflection and needed to find a way to force an unwitting industry to confront its role in an amorphous media environment.
Project Meddle takes a satirical approach to a complex series of real events. A international group of anonymous advertising professionals submitted Russia’s interference in America’s 2016 presidential election to several of the industry’s most prestigious award shows. The case study submitted uses industry terminology to drive its central point home: Donald Trump is reimagined as a top-tier influencer — and the face of the campaign — while Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos become tier-two influencers, allowing Russia to “break through America’s crowded media landscape.”
The analogy did not require excessive levels of imagination from the anonymous organization. Testimony to U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller attests that Russia behaved akin to a traditional advertising agency, with spending hitting upwards of $1.25 million per month on social ads, experiential events, A.R. gaming strategy and a real-time newsroom. It tracked metrics like views and comments and measured engagement to assess efforts. Project Meddle assessed Russia's work based on metrics used to evaluate a traditional campaign, and consider it "the most impactful advertising campaign of the century":
- Traditional media impressions: infinite — journalists continue to cover and discuss the after-effects of the campaign
- Social media impressions: 288 million on Twitter — sufficient to reach 90 percent of Twitter
- Click-through rate: 760 million — enough for every American adult to have clicked through the stories three times
A significant portion of the campaign’s merit comes from its nontraditional successes:
- Thirteen federal indictments (and counting)
- One Russia-friendly president
What they told AdAge:
“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,” state anonymous members of the group when interviewed. “These trolls didn’t have huge budgets, and frankly, a lot of them are pretty shitty at Photoshop; however, you can’t deny the effectiveness.”
Lessons to be learned:
- Speak the language to turn it upside down. — A significant portion of the power of Project Meddle comes from its uncanny ability to discuss Russian actions within the linguistic paradigm of the advertising industry. A voice-over introduces the campaign by stating: “In 2016, Russia was losing relevance among democracy-obsessed Americans. So, when the United States was gearing up for the next presidential election, it was time to do something disruptive,” and refers to coverage of Trump as “a first-of-its-kind approach to earned media. Instead of relying on slow-moving traditional news organizations, we simply created our own news coverage and built a social newsroom to amplify his content around the clock.” An interview in The New Yorker with four of the campaign’s creators reveals the sardonic approach and mordant origins of the campaign unique to industry insiders.
- Be flexible. — The campaign’s concept evolved over time as the need for its denunciatory perspective became clearer. The group’s original plan called for a fake Webbys submission; however, over time it realized this would not be sufficient to grab the attention of their peers. The group produced a case study and funded its legitimate submission into the awards show under the categories of Best Social Media Campaign and Best Digital Campaign.
Challenge convention. — The campaign’s creators wanted to generate discussion about a contentious issue; however, they believed that a public address or call-to-action could lead to firing and a professional blacklist. They needed a platform capable of catching the attention of their intended audience.
“As an industry, we love taking credit for how influential we are when we do something good,” one of the orchestrators stated in an interview. “‘We helped people register to vote.’ ‘We raised money for orphanages.’ ‘Our creativity changed millions of minds.’ O.K., but then those powers fall into the wrong hands, and suddenly it has nothing to do with us.”