Billionaire and Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg has hired some of the most popular accounts on Instagram to craft custom memes that make him more relatable to social media users.
It’s the latest effort in the former New York City mayor’s incredibly expensive political advertising strategy — on which he spends an unprecedented million dollars a day on Facebook ads alone. But based on the comments Bloomberg’s recent sponsored posts on Instagram have been getting, things may not be going as planned.
People so far have left more than 1,000 mostly scathing comments on just one of these Bloomberg-sponsored memes posted by a popular Instagram influencer, Tank.Sinatra, on Wednesday. “Fucking sellout,” one reads. “Anything, even an election, for a dollar?,” says another. “You sell out !!!!!! Have some integrity,” another user commented.
In recent days, several influential Instagram accounts like FuckJerry that are known for sharing viral content — some of it by advertisers, and some of it not — started posting memes that build a “self-aware, ironic” character for the candidate, as the New York Times first reported. The memes, which are labeled in the captions as advertisements, are visible to some 60 million followers who follow these influencer accounts.
The posts are a way to counteract the grassroots support and sponsored content other candidates have gained on social media platforms. Democratic primary opponent Sen. Bernie Sanders won the endorsement of two popular meme community groups, Da Share Zone and NUMTOT — earning him street cred in the online humor world. Andrew Yang, who recently dropped out of the Democratic race, built a devoted “Yang Gang” fan base who tirelessly supported him across the web. And Trump’s army of online supporters on Twitter and Facebook helped get him elected in 2016 (many of those supporters, like some of Sanders’s fans, have been accused of resorting to harassment and bullying to intimidate detractors).
The advertising industry that thrives on Instagram seems to love Bloomberg’s campaign — one marketer who posted a Bloomberg meme told the Times it was the most successful ad he’s ever posted. But the onslaught of critical comments on the memes raises questions about the effectiveness of the campaign — both for Bloomberg and for the influential meme pages that risk losing their cool by promoting a candidate who’s viewed by many of their followers as an out-of-touch billionaire trying to buy his way into an election.
“I’m not surprised by the negative reaction,” Travis N. Ridout, a professor of government and public policy at Washington State University who researches online political advertising, told Recode. “Especially given the media attention that he is getting for this, people could feel like they’re being duped or manipulated.”
Many of the negative comments specifically called out Bloomberg for his wealth — labeling him as an “oligarch.” Others accused him of trying to distract from his checkered past on racial issues, which includes instituting controversial “stop-and-frisk” policing in New York City that disproportionately impacted people of color.
“A lot of times, memes are seen as organic, created by people who have something funny to say,” Ridout said. But “to the extent that this is seen as something that is paid for by a rich guy” then it may not have the same impact.
Not all popular memes are profit-free. The very same influencer accounts that are making memes for Bloomberg, like FuckJerry, can make hundreds of thousands of dollars for posting a single authentic-feeling meme for major consumer brands. The firm has attracted criticism in the past for lifting other people’s jokes without attribution. With the Bloomberg meme, though, the criticism is different — the issue isn’t about FuckJerry or other marketing accounts exploiting other people’s unpaid labor, but around a politician who’s viewed as trying to exploit the democratic process by purchasing a hipper image.
A spokesperson for the Bloomberg campaign, Sabrina Singh, did not respond to Recode’s questions about how the campaign was measuring the success of the ads, or if it had a response to the negative comments. Instead, Singh sent the following statement: “Mike Bloomberg 2020 has teamed up with social creators to collaborate with the campaign, including the meme world. While a meme strategy may be new to presidential politics, we’re betting it will be an effective component to reach people where they are and compete with President Trump’s powerful digital operation.”
Donald Trump launched what was considered one of the most effective digital political campaign strategies in election history, largely by running Facebook ads that targeted specific voters with messages tailored to their interests and demographics. As the Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed, the campaign hired outside consultants who controversially exploited users’ private data in order to do that.
In those cases, voters were much more likely to have positive — or at worst, neutral — reactions, since they’d already been identified as likely Trump voters. In this case, Bloomberg’s Instagram ads are being blasted to anyone who follows the accounts. Which is why we may be seeing so many negative responses.
And what about the old adage that any press is good press?
“That may apply when you’re running for state legislature and you’re swinging loudly at the gates of Eden, hoping someone will write your name down, but that doesn’t apply when you’re a billionaire,” said Rory McShane, a Republican media consultant. “Voters don’t like disingenuity. That’s why people don’t like the ads.”
It’s hard to quantify exactly how negative the reaction has been to Bloomberg’s Instagram ads. That’s because unlike on Facebook, Instagram posts don’t publicly display as many analytics. The app recently hid the “Like” count for everyone but the user who posts in the US.
For now, what we can see are the comments on these posts. And based on those comments, Bloomberg’s sponcon doesn’t seem to be convincing people he’s any more relatable, hip, or funny than he was before.