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[Election 101] Branding for office: How candidates are marketed for elections

Marketing essential to shaping a candidate’s public image

Feb. 23, 2022 - 13:54 By Ko Jun-tae
Presidential nominee Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea is portrayed as a candidate with skills and experience to bring back growth to South Korea, asking voters to "think again" despite his weaknesses of criminal records and immoral behaviors from the past. (Screen capture from YouTube)
In every election, candidates offer pledges, but winning support requires a person voters can believe in, and complex marketing and branding tactics are key parts of a candidate's public image.

TV advertisements have undoubtedly taken up a large portion of marketing tactics in each presidential election, and successful video appearance has accounted for much of success tales of many former presidents in their bid for the top administrative post.

Famously, President Moon Jae-in for the 2017 presidential race branded himself as a compassionate political figure by highlighting his appearances at memorial events for the Sewol ferry disaster.

The video emphasized his critical stance toward the incumbent administration at the time, while attempting to convey that he empathized with the victims. He was shown shedding tears during the event, in an apparent bid to depict his human side to voters.

During the 2012 presidential election, Moon’s predecessor Park Geun-hye explicitly showed the facial scars she got when a man slashed open her right cheek with a utility knife during a local election campaign in 2006.

She also showed no change in facial expression during the advert, seemingly to emphasize she was a candidate with a calm, serious mind. Park tried to highlight in her campaign that she was more experienced than her rival Moon.

Former President Lee Myung-bak appeared in a TV advertisement in which he was eating soup at a traditional marketplace while hearing a merchant asking him to save the economy if become the president. He sought to emphasize his working class background while highlighting the accomplishments of his years as Seoul mayor.

His predecessor Roh Moo-hyun held a guitar in his hand and sang a popular folk song to convey the image of being the man of the people. His background of coming from a poor farming family and working as a human rights lawyer worked in harmony with the imagery, scoring his ticket to the Blue House.
A TV advertisement for presidential nominee Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party shows Yoon smiling in front of a child with a message reading, "Yoon Suk-yeol raised by the people, president who can change tomorrow." (Screen capture from YouTube)
And now for the 20th presidential election, candidates are continuing to rely on the power of marketing and political branding, having many of their TV advertisements cover their weakness and put their strengths up front.

The campaign team for presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea produced its first TV advertisement focusing on the history of Lee as a labor rights lawyer while highlighting his history of serving in local government roles.

Recognizing that many voters dislike Lee for his criminal record and unethical behavior, the advertisement tries to appeal to such people, pleading for their understanding by claiming that Lee made the mistakes while standing up for the side of the weak.

"Lee Jae-myung says too much, is too aggressive, had a difficult childhood, has complex family issues … we know, and we are sorry, but we ask you to think again," the advertisement says in a narration.

"Even though there is a big hatred, please ask a larger question," it continues. "Who will be better to overcome this extremely tiring COVID-19 crisis and resolve the difficult economic crisis?"

The advertisement showed images of Lee working at his office or attending to public matters to emphasize that he has experience in politics and public administration, as opposed to his main rival Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party.

Yoon instead had his one of his first TV advertisements emphasize himself as "a man raised by the people," apparently to distract from his essentially nonexistent experience in administration and politics. It claims Yoon has been able to wage his fights against the privileged with justice and common sense only because he was helped by the people.

The advertisement for Yoon briefly showed people in different occupations seemingly to emphasize that Yoon can relate to people of different backgrounds and is able to care for them with genuine interest in providing relief to those struggling from the pandemic and economic difficulties.

Another advertisement for Yoon portrayed Yoon as a candidate capable of bringing back justice and bring hope to the struggling population, attempting to prove himself as a candidate who can overcome the debacles of the Moon administration.

"Justice and common sense have fallen, and so have the lives of people," the advertisement says in a narration. "To bring back justice and common sense, to change the despair of today to hope for tomorrow, the people have summoned Yoon Suk-yeol and raised him."

Experts believe that marketing strategies for candidates, especially in video formats, are essential in today’s politics, so much so that they describe today’s political scene as "media politics."

"Even during the development of media from television to smartphones that everyone uses and social media, political advertisements have adjusted to these changes and have appeared in novel formats throughout elections," said a report from the Story & Image Telling Research Institute in 2019.

"The core of media politics is that politics leaving the visual space and entering the virtual space itself can result in media having strong influence on politics."