How ‘Ridesharing Works’ Spent Themselves Into Losing on Prop 1

The most expensive marketing/advertising campaign spent on politics in Austin, TX, for Prop 1, just lost because it spent too much. Let me tell you how.

Whether you live in Austin, or not, you’ve likely already heard about the campaign for Prop 1. This fight ticket was labeled as Uber / Lyft vs. The City of Austin. In a nutshell, it was the TNC (transportation network companies) lobby, called Ridesharing Works, working to overwrite legislation the city put into place requiring TNCs to do fingerprint background checks managed by the city, as well as a few other requirements. A vote Yes for Prop 1 would allow the TNC companies to run the show like they have been doing historically.

It doesn’t matter which position is the right/wrong one. There are countless blogs available to you to find out what it’s about and which side you agree with. #LMGTFY

I found the execution of the campaign on the part of the PAC Ridesharing Works to be far more interesting. First off, they spent ~$8,600,000 on all the advertising and marketing in the Austin area; and they left few options off the table. I’m an Austin resident, and here’s the action I received, as far as I noticed:

  • Full color, multi-page flyers in direct mail (some citizens reported as many as 2 a day for a month leading up to the election)
  • Hulu TV ads
  • Pandora video and audio ads
  • Facebook ads
  • Text messages
  • Phone calls

I’m sure I missed a few others in there, like local tv ads, paid for bloggers (I suspect a few I’ve read), etc. Afterall, they also spent $50k enlisting the previous mayor of Austin, Lee Leffingwell, as spokesperson.

The conventional thinking around this is that with such expense on ads and campaigning, they must have won right?


Well, first off, I think the Jeb Bush campaign proved that money spent won’t ensure victory. However, in this case, I feel the amount of money ensured the loss. There are a number of reasons why this is the case:

  1. It was so concentrated that the citizens were VERY aware of how much advertising and marketing budget was being used
  2. The citizens got so battered with ads that it was perceived as bullying
  3. The money spent was much larger than the cost of the regulations they were trying to avoid

The irony of this campaign is that the messaging was actually very good (with one very notable exception). RSW PAC took a number of very strong messaging points that combined data with emotion to elicit a strong response from people. They wove a narrative that supporters upheld of “Big Government” against the vision of tech futurists. Supporters even hailed Libertarian positions of the free market being tampered with by regulators.

However, that narrative ran aground in the extreme overspending by a political action committee, something that’s already a pejorative in most citizens’ minds. We were aware that a PAC was behind all this campaigning. We were also losing patience with the idea that these companies claimed how onerous the cost of the city regulations are, while spending unprecedented millions on a small, single-issue election.

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The ad spend became news. Social Networks were lit abuzz with annoyed and angry citizens sharing photos and screenshots of all the direct mail or texts they received from Uber and Lyft. The ad spend became a major discussion topic. And it tipped the scales.

Citizens responded with a 56% vote against Prop 1. They rejected the idea that company should enter a local market and spend record breaking millions trying to influence a local issue. They were annoyed at the waste, at the tone deafness of all the printed flyers in an environmentally conscious city, and the bullying of Uber and Lyft’s PAC.

Of course there are many layers at play here, so I don’t want to sell the idea that this analysis is the only reason RSW lost this election. But it’s a major factor, and advertisers and marketers should especially take note of this.


Money doesn’t win the game. You must be smarter, you must know your audience, and you must not be so blatantly obvious. It can turn against you. At Speak Social we’ve always said “You can’t spend your way out of a problem. You must address the problem and respect your customers.”

This was a political campaign, but this lesson applies to everything. Amazon is so obvious with their retargeted advertising that people, who have no idea that retargeted technology exists, just figured out that it did on their own. That’s how much Amazon slaps you in the face with their ads. Imagine if they were as aggressive with their direct mails, texts, calls, and digital media ads as this doomed PAC was.

You can’t treat voters OR customers like brainless fodder in your propaganda game. They won’t endure it, and they’ll resent you for it. These Austin customers didn’t like being manipulated, they didn’t like wasteful spending, and they’re very savvy with advertising and digital media. When they got daily flyers, they thought about all the forests you just eradicated to try and influence them. Stop killing all the forests and be smarter.

Do you like getting 20-60 flyers in your mailbox? Do you like being lobbied via text and phone? Take this lesson with you. Think about WHO you’re communicating with. Understand WHERE they live and how it shapes their worldview. As authentically as you can, BE one of them. Only then can you be very effective and enact a sound strategy.

Brad Bogus

Brad has spent over 10 years in the digital multimedia industry. In 2010, he started Speak Social, a digital marketing and advertising team that defies the traditional agency model. Brad has multiple industry related articles published online, has spoken on many panels and presented on Social Media, Search and the future of Online Marketing, including during SXSWi, and has appeared on numerous news stories and radio interviews on the industry. Brad is also a celebrated trainer and has educated Fortune 500 companies, entrepreneurs, and the US State Department alike on Social Media strategy and implementation. Speak Social creates the strategies and campaigns for brands utilizing all forms of Social Media for marketing, advertising, sales, crowdfunding and PR.

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