An Interview with Professor Adonis E. Hoffman

By Angela Hart

Professor Adonis E. Hoffman, J.D., Adjunct Faculty, Communication, Culture & Technology (CCT), sat down with Angela Hart, Second-year Graduate Student, Communication, Culture & Technology (CCT), Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., on October 1, 2015, to discuss the 2016 presidential election, marketing to voters, and net neutrality.

I read that you have a background in marketing and law, and you were on the National Advertising Review Board, National Advertising Division, and Children’s Advertising Review Unit, just to name a few. Are there any I’m missing?

No, those affiliations really came about as a result of my work with the American Association of Advertising Agencies for ten years, well, actually, about twelve years, I was the General Counsel, the Chief Legal Officer for the American Association of Advertising Agencies and that’s the trade association that represents the advertising industry and, though, the organizations you mentioned, the National Advertising Division, the National Advertising Review Board, and the Children’s Advertising Review Unit, CARU, those are all self-regulatory bodies that were established by the advertising industry to help police itself many years ago, and I had the good fortune of just being one of the representatives on those Boards.

You have a very interesting background with the advertising and law; those are two fields you don’t normally see together.

Yes, so, actually, it speaks to the course that I teach this semester at CCT, which is a course on Marketing, Advertising, and Public Policy, or Technology Policy, and advertising is one of those sectors in marketing that actually has very well-established rules…Most of the rules are grounded in the Constitution, First Amendment, the ability of marketers or advertisers, or commercial speakers, to essentially engage in free speech talking about their products or their services. So advertising and marketing really do have a very close nextness to legal issues. There’s a healthy body of advertising law and advertising regulation, and much of this is regulated by the Federal Trade Commission but the Supreme Court, occasionally, rarely, gets involved in these issues; so, it’s a very interesting area, and fascinating area, and I kind of got into it as a result of my work in the government at the FCC.

eM&P is electronic media and politics so what are your thoughts about the cross between advertising, marketing, and politics because there seems to be a clear intermixing of all the different kind of fields, now?

Yes, more so now than ever before. Political advertising has really reached a high point, I think, with respect to how issues are advertised in the media, particularly television, the broadcast media, and a little bit increasingly online, but really more in the broadcast media. And, of course, political advertising for candidates so we’ll see more of that now; we’re now at the very early stages, mid-stages of the Presidential Election 2016, so there’s going to be more of that to come, and it’s really fascinating to know that in today’s society, today’s environment, if a candidate does not have enough dollars, enough money, enough funding to have a significant media campaign or media strategy, then that candidate, no matter how credible he or she may be, no matter how strong or popular he or she may be, is really going to be doomed to failure.

What do you think about the citizen or the voter being marketed to versus becoming aware of issues?

So, like everything, consumers or, in this case, voters, voters or think of them as consumers and, in this case, the product is going to be either the issue or the particular candidate. And, in that regard, again, in today’s market, technology, the technology and the methodologies are so sophisticated that it allows for pinpoint precision in terms of marketing to you. So those campaigners know exactly who you are, they may not know your name or your address, but they know, for example, that you are a twenty-something graduate student at Georgetown University, that you reside somewhere in the greater metropolitan Washington area, that you went online last week or yesterday or twenty minutes ago.

Is that through Big Data? How do they know all this?

Absolutely…I think it depends on how you look at it but, yes, Big Data is very much alive and well in the campaign and political space; it’s always been alive in the commercial space but I think the technology and the sophistication has developed such that you can match those data points now with voters. So, I’m always amazed to see the databases and how they’re sliced and diced and, obviously, these are all for sale.

That’s menacing in a way.

You can go and get a database of interesting fancy names, Town & Country, Yuppies, Buppies, Metrosexuals, just all sorts of, you know, Soccer Moms, etc. Every, single, possible demographic group and sub-demographic group, and sub, sub, sub-demographic group you can find or think about, it’s available.

Now I should say, in full disclosure, one of the organizations that I work closely work is Nielsen Company. Nielsen is known as an organization that does TV ratings but, more than that, it really is a big data company; it’s a big data technology company, and Nielsen measures everything that consumers watch. So, television, online, radio, and everything that we buy as consumers so whatever you buy in terms of your groceries, your other retail goods and products and services, there’s a measurement there. Again, it’s not tailored to you, specifically, but in the aggregate that data is very, very, precious to retailers, to companies, to anybody who wants to market to you so that’s part of the work that I do with that company and for some other organizations.

There’s this ominous feeling, Big Brother is watching.

I wrote a piece about that, not long ago, talking about Google, for example. You know, Google has probably some of the best data on all of us. Google and, increasingly, now, Facebook, because if you think about it, I’m not a Facebook user, but Facebook, you go on, you engage, all your friends are there, what you like, what you don’t like, what you saw last week, what you ate – all those things are there – that data exists for somebody; it belongs to Facebook, it doesn’t belong to you and, even when your Facebook account goes away, it’s still their data. Same with Pinterest, same with Instagram, same with all social media, LinkedIn, they’re all there, and Twitter, they’re all there, and that data is being aggregated and it’s very, very, valuable to a lot of different interest groups.

I wanted to ask what your thoughts were on branding a political campaign because every campaign it seems as if they have that one logo or one saying that they’re really trying to ingrain in the voter or the citizen. How crucial is this? When does it work well? When does it fail?

Branding is very important so when we think of, I was just in a focus group, yesterday, and we were talking about political candidates and the leader, the moderator of the focus group, asked, he wanted one-word responses to twelve of the candidates so, “Donald Trump! What do you think?” so he went around the room and someone said, “Money, Rich, Nasty,” or whatever. Yeah, well, older people, they probably didn’t want to be too in politic; anyway, but the brand, so Donald Trump has spent a lot of time on his brand. And then you have those candidates who have not yet broken through the clutter so we’ve got on the Republican side, all of these candidates and some of them are just indistinguishable from the other. So you think about it, again, you think about some of those at the bottom, John Kasich, I don’t want to say Marco Rubio because he’s probably a little bit – Chris Christie, “How do they distinguish themselves? What’s their brand?”

At one point Chris Christie had one brand, had a brand, but that seems to have faded in the background now and it’s something different. Ben Carson, he’s kind of, aside from being the only African-American, the only physician, his brand has kind of been ‘I’m the reasonable guy’ – ‘I’m the voice of reason’ – ‘I’m the grown-up’ – ‘I’m a mild-mannered reasonable person that you wouldn’t mind spending time with.’ Again, Hillary Clinton, “What is her brand?” There are those who are trying to define her and brand her one way, and I think she’s having a little bit of a difficulty now breaking away from the branding that has been imposed upon her.

So I think it’s very important, I think branding is one of those things that can make or break a candidate and, in the mind of the average voter or consumer, they may not know very much about the candidates’ position on ISIS, or the candidates’ position on Immigration, or the candidates’ position on the Healthcare Plan but they just might know, you know, um, ‘Jeb Bush, he seems to be a reasonable guy,’ or ‘Hillary, she’s a fighter,’ or ‘Joe Biden, he’s amiable grandfather-type,’ whatever. So, again, most voters tend to look at a few points on a respectable political candidate and then ascribe some characteristics of that individual and that becomes for that voter that brand.

When you take and pull out and look at those in the aggregate, and you get a bunch of people together and say, “Okay, what do you think about Joe Biden?” “Well, he’s experienced.” Does that mean he’s old or he’s been around for a long time? – that becomes his brand and then his political strategists say, “Well, if 95% or 80% of Americans think that Joe Biden’s experienced, that’s a good thing, that’s going to become part of our brand” – and I think that’s the way it happens in this process.

What are your thoughts on crafting a successful political campaign from a marketing perspective? Are you trying to gauge it more towards the voter or, in a general sense, a very demographic type of situation? How are you gauging the voter because certain candidates are going to poll better with the younger, certain candidates are going to do better with older, so how do you figure out the marketing perspective of it?

Well, I think, there are probably three or four main points in marketing a political candidate. One is certainly ‘Name Recognition’ so you want to make sure that people know your name and have some positive association with your name. Two, that there is ‘Some Differentiation’ so that when they think of you, they don’t just think of you as yet another senator, or yet another governor, or yet another politician but there’s something different and distinct about you so you want to make certain that you’re separating yourself from the pack. And we saw that quite evident in the Republican, the first one or two Republican debates, where they were trying to sort of differentiate themselves either on issues or by the way that they spoke, etc.

So, Name Recognition, Differentiation, and then having one or two ‘Main Message Points’ – so we know, for example, let’s take Donald Trump, his main message, well, he’s got two: one is “I’m a dealmaker and I’ll get us a good deal” and “Let’s Make America Strong Again, Great Again.” You have Bernie Sanders on the other side of the spectrum, you know, ‘The Rich are Ruining America’ and his message is “Let’s Take America Back from the Rich Class and Give It Back to the Working People.”

So I think you’ve got Name Recognition, Some Differentiation, Message, and then a way of ‘Delivering Your Message with Some Consistency’ to those individuals that you want to sure up where your support may be weak and then those individuals who may be undecided. So, for example, for Bernie Sanders to aim his message at firm voters who have voted consistently Republican, or very conservative Republican, would be a waste of time and money. He knows that he’s not going to persuade those individuals but he may, which is why he’s resonating so well with Independents.

What are your thoughts in regards to Bernie Sanders and social media? Or the other candidates? Are they lacking? Are they keeping up? Have you looked into it at all?

Well, yes, I think that the social media phenomenon, it really is past generational. So Obama was the first sort of, you know, tech-savvy President or candidate, and he was able to raise a lot of money online and was able to do that and he had some skillful strategists and technicians working on his campaign.

I think that the body of knowledge in terms of social media is now sufficiently wide-spread so that we all recognize, for example, probably about two years ago, I was really surprised to see the number of U.S. Senators and U.S. members of The House tweeting, for example.

There are actually a lot of hashtags at the moment that are rather negative, I mean, most of them are anti-Hillary Clinton so do you think the negative aspects of social media also have a factor in addition to Bernie Sanders just having hashtag #Feel the Bern?

Yes, absolutely, I think it cuts both ways; it can cut both ways in very significant ways. A negative social media campaign that either comes up organically or is generated by opposition can be just as important, just as significant, as one that’s super positive. So when you have, in the Republican debates, when you have Donald Trump, for example, if he makes a negative remark against women…We saw the outrage on social media. Carly Fiorina, who has made some very strong statements, that has made some very positive strides over the last several months, has come up; and so then, there’s positives and the negatives in terms of her business, questions about her business record. Equally, they can cut, it can go either way, and I think it’s important. Clearly, candidates have to manage that, manage those particular possibilities, very well, skillfully, and there’s probably a delicate balance there because some of that you can’t control.

What are your thoughts about political engagement becoming more business-like with the Twitter feeds and advertisements where, if you have the trending hashtags in the corner, one of them can be a business-sponsored advertisement? A lot of candidates are having those hashtags and they’re having those trending topics. What are your thoughts about advertising in that way?

Well, I think that that’s probably a logical outgrowth of where things were going so we’re also seeing the melding or the convergence of commercial advertising, marketing, and political advertising and marketing. And I think that the principles that used to be, not very long ago, kind of a really big wall or thick wall between the two dividing them and less so now. I think that the principles and the way that what works well in the commercial world, I think the political strategists have discovered that that can work well in the political world and vice versus. I think there are certain aspects of the personality issues that come out in political campaigns that we see now in consumer and commercial advertising. The use of celebrities, for example, we live in a celebrity-driven culture…When you look at how celebrities are used in commercials, from those who are well-known to those who may not be so well-known, but they become the spokespeople for products and services. At some point in the political campaign, we’re going to see endorsements by famous people, to have someone who has – I was reading, recently, that Hillary Clinton was stalking Taylor Swift because she wanted all of her Twitter followers and Taylor Swift was resisting.

It makes sense, and they were somewhere together and Taylor was at some New York event and Taylor was, you know, she had finished her performance and she literally sort of moved and tried to fan Hillary off; back way, back away. But, you know, it’s interesting because the point is that you have political people who are now – who wouldn’t want to have Ashton Kutcher, Vin Diesel, who’s got like tons of Twitter followers, Kardashians, saying wonderful things about them or at least having their social media followers as a political candidate? It’s a cool factor and, also, it may resonate with voters in getting your message out.

So it’s all about distribution now what we’re finding so we know that in the commercial world distribution is really important to get your product out; after you’ve done your message, identified where your market is, “How do you get it out there?” right? well, “Distribution.” Well, let’s say, now, in the political realm, “How do you distribute your message as broadly as possible, across as many platforms as possible?”

I went on your YouTube account, and I spent quite a bit time trying to learn about your perspective on things; and, in your Media Measurement, Marketing & Advertising video, you mentioned that marketing needs to ensure “not to be off putting to consumers.” How would politicians try to “not be off putting to their consumers” or their voters?

Yeah, good point, so what all the data suggests that, as consumers, we are inundated on a daily basis – seeing various numbers – anywhere from 4,000 messages to 10,000 different messages coming at us across all media on a daily basis. From the time you get up, to the time you go to bed, outside, on your mobile devices, online, on television, audio, radio, etc., coming up with different separate messages. I don’t know the actual numbers but it’s a lot and two things that develop as a result of that: one is, as consumers, we are inundated with clutter so we tend to not pay attention to most messages unless they have something that resonates with us – humor, sentiment, sometimes, or something that’s really loud and clashing at you, just forces your attention – so companies and products are constantly struggling in trying to refine their approaches to how to cut through the clutter that the average consumer sees in the marketplace. And, I think right now, we’re all a little bit or at least a little bit in the Washington area, probably others, and when it comes to the debates, we’re all very focused on the political campaign.

As we get closer to the Election and the messages become more regular, and they become, you know, we get flooded with campaign messages, radio messages, online or mobile, on television, as consumers, as voters, we’re going to pull back, and we’re going to say, “That’s enough!” –“I’ve seen this ad, three times before, I can almost recite it by heart!” and, we’ll see that with issues ads as well. I watch Sunday morning television and the talk shows, regularly, and I can tell when an ad is working because it gets run more and more – so the more often it’s run, the more effective it becomes and I think we’ll see more and more of that with the political campaigns.

I know the Election isn’t for another year and it’s already been advertised; you already have your candidates, there’s a lot going on right now. I went on your Twitter profile and one of your tweets said, “The Internet is gradually overtaking traditional media, what’s next?” What are your thoughts on the evolution of media?

So, I grew up in the golden-days of television in a sense that, you know, it was the only medium; there were only three networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC, then along came FOX. And, television, radio, and newspapers were the media. And I’ve had the good fortune, been blessed to be able to now say, ‘seeing that now, we have this new digital media that allows us to communicate with anybody, anywhere, anytime, really 24/7, 365, the whole time’ and, so, traditional media are struggling. Physical newspapers are almost a thing-of-the-past, I mean, I’ve two, wonderful kids, 23 and 21; they’re typical, one is out in the workforce, is a Georgetown Alum; the other’s a pre-med student at Villanova, but they don’t read the newspapers. I remember when I was in college, I loved reading the newspapers.

Now, as a subscriber to The Wall Street Journal, for example, which I love, I used to love just getting a hard copy; it doesn’t matter because, now, I go online every morning, it’s like it’s pushed to me. So the television broadcast, for example, particularly, I think, we’re in a little bit of a bubble because television is on the entertainment side. Television is experiencing sort of a little bit of a renaissance now with all the content but that has been helped along because of the other media that allows for television content, what used to be television content, to be broadcast across all media.

So, Wednesday night, I was out. I missed Empire, okay. There used to be a time when I would either have to set a DVR or, way back when, a VCR, and tape it, so that I can rush home and see it or see it later. Well, now, with my cell phone or I can just go on Hulu, whatever, and see it. So, television content, content is still very important; it’s now the platform is less important so, you know, again, my kids, with the exception of sports, my kids probably would never watch broadcast television or cable television because they’ve got Netflix, they’ve got other options all coming over the top, online video distributors, they can go online, etc., etc.

The new media are overtaking traditional media and that’s what I meant, “What’s next?” – who knows? – I just hope, I’m very encouraged by the fact that innovation is spurring additional ways for content to get out there, and this is a good thing for content creators, those who are in the business of creating new programs, new television shows, or new content, the fact that they have all these other areas of distribution, it’s very encouraging for them, and I think for the broadcast industry, it sets up a challenge because they have to find a way to keep continually current and relevant for consumers. Particularly, as guys like me, sort of wane, and people of your generation all become the predominant consumers.

Due to my own studies, I have to ask about “Last Week Tonight, and The John Oliver Effect with the FCC and Net Neutrality because that’s something that’s kind of become a surprising element in this historical moment? I read in your profile that you were with the FCC and you have studied the Net Neutrality issue to great lengths.

I lived it so I was a Chief of Staff and Senior Legal Advisor for one of the five FCC commissioners; so there are five FCC commissioners, my commissioner was Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who was previously the Acting Chair of the FCC. I joined the commission in, regionally, because I was there in the earlier part of my career, and I rejoined the commission in November of 2013, and net neutrality had just been kicked back to the FCC from the Federal Court. And, so, when the Court kicked it back to the FCC for another decision consistent with its opinion, it wasn’t a very big deal.

So net neutrality, the opening that was really a little-known regulatory/legal opinion decision that had not been resolved at the FCC twice before; and, but, a coalition, talking about politics, a coalition of very desperate groups, who had a point of view with respect to net neutrality, came together, and actually coalesce and mobilized public opinion and consumer opinion and, actually, popular opinion on net neutrality; and, that culminated with the John Oliver piece twice, actually, two of his: one was that he gave it, he did the video on ‘what is net neutrality, what does it mean?’ and then he kind of made fun of the FCC Chairman calling him a Bingo.

I was there, my office was right next door to the Chairman’s office, so we were there but here’s the key point – the key point is that John Oliver tapped into popular sentiment in a way that no one else had and he took an issue that was somewhat arcane, somewhat, not removed, but just off-the-beaten path and he brought it home to people in a way that had never been done before, and he asked, and he activated them and motivated them.

After the Oliver piece, he asked his viewers to contact the FCC and they did; and, they flooded the FCC to the tune of four million emails and phone calls so much so that people in my position, there were five Chief Legal Advisors working on this and we had to change our phone numbers.

Because we were getting so many phone calls coming in, we had to get another line. So many people calling in, consumers, who would just call in and say, “This is Tom Jones from Iowa, I want you to vote Title II, Net Neutrality, thank you,” – “This is Suzie Edwards from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, I want you to vote Title II, and have Tom Wheeler vote Title II” – “This is Joe Shmoe from Pacoima, California, I’m calling to say, could you please have Tom Wheeler vote Title II, Net Neutrality, Save the Internet, Don’t Break the Internet, Save the Internet.”

There were very few decisions or high points for me at the FCC and that was one, okay, I’m very grateful to have been there during the time that we considered and voted on the Net Neutrality decision and I played a part in analyzing it. But, it’s not over yet because, now, it’s in the courts, and the courts will have a final word and probably kick it back to the FCC and they’ll go through it again. But, having been through it once before, it showed me the power, the power of media and you had two, actually, two different types of media coming together – so John Oliver comes on a cable show, HBO cable show, to his viewers and, of course, it was rebroadcast online.

I’m surprised they got telephone calls because when you watch the episode, he says, “I’m talking to you, all the people who comment on the baby videos dancing, all of you who talk about actresses gaining weight.” He talked, specifically, about YouTube commenters so I’m surprised that you actually got people picking up the phone.

Yes, I’m not sure if they picked up the phone as a result of his particular message or others who followed that but it certainly was an outcome; but, the email and the mail were very significant.

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Angela Hart

Angela Hart is currently earning her master’s degree at Georgetown University in Communication, Culture, and Technology. Originally from Massachusetts, she graduated from Bentley University with a bachelor’s degree in Communications with minors in English and Law. She is involved with film studies, new media and politics, journalistic practices, and satires.