At this point, why would anyone other than a professional political operative or hard-core fan still want to talk about the 2012 U.S. presidential election? If you're an entrepreneur, it might be because there was an enormous lesson in the whole exercise: Having money is great, but when it comes to marketing, too much could be the kiss of death.

A press release from innovation consultant Larry Popelka made the case of how both Obama and Romney made a critical mistake with an overabundance of ads:

  1. Had they been corporations, each campaign would have been among the top 50 advertisers in the U.S., based on advertising spend.
  2. Money flowed into short-term tactical ads seeking reactive advantage to events and blunders of the other side. That meant a lack of brand building.
  3. Give marketing people too many resources and they have little need to push themselves to do something different, clever, or surprising.

Pointing to which campaign spent more is a little tricky. On one hand, according to the New York Times, the Obama campaign had outspent Romney by about $100 million in mid-October. But that didn't include significant sums that a number of organizations had spent either in support of Romney or against Obama.

Karl Rove's American Crossroads and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies poured an estimated $127 million into opposing Obama and supporting a number of Republican candidates, many of whom lost.

That so much money could go to losing causes in politics shouldn't be surprising, as we've seen it before. For example, when HP CEO Meg Whitman ran for governor of California in 2010, she spent $160 million, mostly her own cash, outspending Jerry Brown by six to one. But by the end, he got 53.1% of the vote while she had 41.7%. A real shellacking.

Money can definitely be helpful in marketing, but there are other major factors:


Whether a clever positioning of your product to address unconscious consumer desires, the subtle use of emotion to drive people to purchase, an offer, or even just a clear set of benefits, if you aren't saying something attractive to people, they're not going to buy. If your message is off-base enough, putting more money into a campaign could actually drive more people away.

Audience selection

In any form of marketing, one of the most critical factors is reaching the right people with your message. If you have the wrong demographics, mailing lists, and publications, it is amazing just how quickly you can squander money.


The distance from good to bad ad is often short. According to some advertising references, Pampers disposables originally tried a straight and factual commercial touting the benefits of the disposable diaper. The results were disappointing. What changed the brand's fortune in large part was the introduction of the "slice of life" commercial, with a "neighbor" showing up next door and helping some hapless new parent to keep her baby cleaner with less mess.


Good advertising that is well executed and targeted does little good if you can't separate the working from the witless. You need as much accuracy as possible in tying marketing to results and not allow wishful thinking or the ego of marketers to spin the efforts to seem more positive than they were, a problem that Republican campaigners faced.

When you rely on financial strength, you can overlook these far more important considerations. And then there is Popelka's good point about creativity. Talk to writers, musicians, and artists and you can learn how beneficial constraints can be. There's nothing like a good hurdle (like working with limited funds) to make you stretch beyond your comfort zone and be innovative, simply because you have no other choice.

So instead of bemoaning your lack of marketing capital--or congratulating yourself on what a healthy round of investment will do--be restrained in what you expect from money. Focus on the factors that really make or break campaigns. Or you could find that the cash you thought would save you ends up disappearing quickly, leaving you in worse shape than you were before.