Were you obsessed with the American election?
Did you gasp at the absurdity of what absolute porkers were told?
Let’s get to the blonde-wigged elephant in the room. Donald Trump got away with statements so false that even when Fox News called him out for a “Pants on Fire” moment, he still doubled down?
More to the point, how come his supporters loved him for it?
Simon Lendrum wrote a great article earlier this month touching on this notion—it’s well worth a read.
Much is being lauded about this new ‘Post-Truth’ age, where ‘the old laws may no longer apply’. But I would argue that as marketers and advertisers, we have always subscribed to this. To go further, the success of our whole industry depends on people believing in a better version of who they want to be and ignoring the details that might get in the way (like reality).
Let’s talk a little more about our blonde-wigged friend to really understand how he got it right, taking massive chapters from our advertising playbook and the new world of data.
When The Washington Post asked Chris Matthews, a well-respected newscaster in the USA on MSNBC (and also a sworn democrat, why Trump succeeded, he said: “The easy answer (and one favoured by Democrats) is racism. Sure, he employs racially coded language… But is everyone who supports Trump racist? That is very hard to believe.”
He argues that what really brings them together is patriotism and the feeling their country is being betrayed. This feeling is so strong that it overwhelms any flaws they saw in Trump (he’s an outsider – of course the establishment hate him). It is a force-wind rationale – details simply get in the way.
So here we have a situation where they feel so strongly about the brand (Trump), that his fans will ignore the “facts” that do not agree with their worldview. In the digital age, there are also enough “news” sources that they can find that will agree with them.
Now, movements are massively stronger because of their ability to find information that they agree with from what they see as credible sources.
A recent New York Times Article (Trump calls it “The Failing Times”), acknowledges how the abuse of facts has ‘led to their decline in authority over time.’
“The problem is the oversupply of facts in the 21st century: There are too many sources, too many methods, with varying levels of credibility…”
Upon its inception, accounting was once the golden standard in the medieval times. Then came statistics, surveys and economics. As these methods expanded, tight-knit institutions, academic societies and professional associations rallied to uphold standards (they were affiliated with and funded by the government). It’s no surprise then, that people develop exclusive truths instead of listening to government-funded professionals, who they feel have abandoned impartiality. Brendan Nyhan of Darmouth College put it succinctly in an article in The Economist: “Right now, it pays to be outrageous, but not to be truthful.”
Its not a campaign, it’s a movement
At it’s core was also an ‘us vs. them’ moment; he called it a ‘movement’ (not dissimilar to the left’s change advocate Bernie Sanders) and that is hugely powerful. The more the media called Trump stupid or out of touch, the more powerful he became. He baited the media at every opportunity and they made them feel part of the institutional system just as much as as Hillary Clinton and co. You can argue against a rational policy, but you can’t argue against an idea.
Trump understood marketing psychology
I’ve talked about Maslow’s hierarchy here before, and at a stunningly simple level, Trump’s message was hugely more powerful for many Americans than Clinton’s. We can see the levels in this chart here. He captured primal instincts of physiological and safety needs. But the next two layers are really interesting. He showered his target audience (white, working class in swing states) with attention and love and a sense of belonging—something they had not felt for a long time.
Clinton may have been talking about the flaws of Trump, but Trump’s message of fear managed to successfully capture American’s psychological and emotional state. Moreover, it bonded Trump and his fans together (deplorables anyone?) and ultimately took the message to the top of the hierarchy (can anyone actually remember Clinton’s campaign message?).
So, he peddles lies, but are they what people want to hear? He ignores facts and argues feelings. What can marketers learn from this?
I am not for one moment advocating a Trump world-view. The Obama presidency to me was the best thing to happen to the USA and the movement for tolerance globally. However, not to understand how he won is to do ourselves a disservice as marketers. He had a successful challenger strategy and it worked.
So we come back to this rather earnest term of the ‘Post-Truth’ age. I actually prefer another version of this, that The Late Night Show’s genius Stephen Colbert came up with. “Truthiness: Ideas which ‘feel right’ or ‘should be true.’”
When we have heaps of data we can group together and say there is a feeling, this itself can then become a fact. No, if you want to believe something you probably will, given enough polish and media behind it. The beer industry has known this for years.
A classic Peroni creative shows an expensive looking model in a gorgeous Italian setting next to a great shot of the beer. I suspect the truthiness of this is that maybe, just maybe, if guys drink this beer they will meet an equally glamorous girl and Italian magic will happen. We fundamentally know this isn’t true, but we want it to be (and by golly it should be) – truthiness works. The same goes for many brands including cosmetics.
The simple fact remains: the key to your message being understood and your product bought is to get a ‘truth’ that your audiences think is largely true and they will be prepared to put up with some of the inconvenient details.
Finally, beware the ‘research effect’
Why was Trump so sure he was going to win? Well, one argument is that he had better data—but it was much better than this; he knew how to treat it with healthy cynicism.
The research company Trafalgar Group began to notice the research methodologies were not quite right and tried something different. They asked people not who they would vote for but who their neighbours would vote for (noting that identifying as a Trump supporter, automatically made you a racist, sexist idiot in the mainstream media) – the differences were as big as a six percent-seven percent swing and predicted the win. Wikipedia actually calls this the ‘shy tory Factor’ .
So why did so many of us predict this election result wrongly? Is it simply that we wanted to believe in something else? One thing bonds us all together – thank you Colbert for Truthiness.
Dean Taylor is managing director of Contagion.