How marketing is paving the way for Donald Trump
June 2, 2016
Why is Donald Trump proving so popular with so many?
The fact that Donald Trump is gaining huge traction is partly the unexpected consequence of the way the marketing industry now goes about the business of brand building. To explain this I’m going to write a post about history. You may ask what this has to do with stories that sell. But I’d argue that history is just that – a story we are told to get us to buy into a certain way of looking at the world.
History is certainly not fact – it’s just someone’s version of things that may or may not have happened in quite the way they decided to tell us. Churchill remarked that “History is written by the victors”, suggesting that much of it is propaganda. Napoleon went even further and declared that “History is a set of lies that people have agreed on”. I’d argue that history is as much fiction as fact. It’s a collection of stories that sell – so a suitable subject for me to cover in a blog that discusses the art of storytelling and persuasion.
What’s more, with the particular tale I’m about to tell, marketing plays a big role in the final chapter. So here goes – a story about how our efforts to flog products have given us The Donald.
Surprised at Donald Trump’s success? You shouldn’t be
History is a big help if you want to understand what’s going on in the world today.
Things that might appear random and unexpected, if you get most of your information from Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and You Tube, are actually quite predictable if you look at the bigger picture and are willing to take the long view. Stuff only comes out of nowhere if you have the attention span of a gnat and a frame of reference no bigger than the screen on your smartphone.
Take Donald Trump. Like a lot of others I’m fascinated by the sheer awfulness of the man. Initially I was amused by him – in the same way one is entertained by a pantomime villain or circus clown.
But now I’m getting worried. Not so much by him as an individual, or by the prospect of him winning, but by the huge numbers of people voting for him – 10.6 million already (there will be more by the time you read this – I’m quoting the figure from The Economist May 7th, before the end of the primaries and before the vote proper).
On top of this worry there’s another – the fact that so few saw him coming (including those who run his adopted party!). The biggest one, for me personally, is the fact that huge numbers of people, all over the world, think he is somehow going to suddenly go away (they’ve been saying this repeatedly – and they’ve been wrong every time).
A New York photographer, Brandon Stanton, recently wrote a brilliant open letter castigating Trump as a divisive and aggressive racist. Facebook went all of a flutter as people shared it, declaring optimistically that this revelation “Just Destroyed Donald Trump’s Dream Of Becoming President”. How pathetically misguided – the people who are gleefully flocking to The Donald are doing so precisely because they have no problem with the fact he’s a racist, sexist, xenophobic, abusive, violent and arrogant bully.
The mistake Trump’s critic’s make is to think he’s the problem. He’s not – the man is just the symptom. The problem is way bigger. And it’s not going away. What we’re seeing here is a Tsunami that has been at least a thousand years in the making. Donald is just a smart operator riding the wave. He’ll probably fall off before he reaches the White House but the force behind him will still be in full flood. And if you really want to tackle it you need to take your head out of social media and read some history.
Let me tell you a story
I’m not a historian. But I am curious about the events in the past that have got us to where we are now. I’ve hand-picked a few of them to create a story that you may buy into, or not. I’ll point out (before someone else does) that it’s highly selective, subjective and over simplified. It also takes what I think could be described as a Marxist view. Anyway, here goes.
You can divide society into the haves and the have nots. There have always been a lot more of the latter than the former – just look at ancient Egypt or imperial Rome. Fast forward a thousand years or so to 1066 and Norman Britain. Society was feudal. Almost everybody worked on the land as a peasant. The landowner was either a warrior nobleman (the king, or one of his earls and barons), a bishop or an abbot. Landowners not only owned the estate, but all the people on it – those people had to do his bidding, whether that was digging, sowing, reaping or fighting. Something like a hundred nobles and church leaders presided over a population of millions who were little better than slaves.
Start of the long road to freedom
Over the next four hundred years feudalism began to fragment across most of Europe (although pockets of France remained feudal until 1789 and the system persisted in Russia until 1861). In 1215 King John signed The Magna Carta, which granted the peasantry some very basic human rights. Then the Black Death came along and wiped out half the workforce – the supply of serfs plummeted, demand rocketed, and landowners, competing for a scarce resource, were forced to give some concessions.
At the same time towns and cities began to become more established. These were granted charters by the crown that gave them a degree of autonomy. Capitalising on this freedom they became hubs of a new kind of economy, one where wealth was based not on working the land and paying rents, but on trade, crafts, manufacturing and banking. Feudalism gradually gave way to capitalism, which empowered a whole new strata of society, the bourgeoisie – and the ranks of the haves were swelled by a few million who escaped the grinding poverty of serfdom.
As the middle class grew in size and power so they wanted more of a say in how the country was run – so we began to see the arrival of a more representative form of government, with the monarch having to negotiate with a parliament made up not just of landowners and clergy but those of the mercantile and professional classes. Power was therefore less concentrated in the hands of a few.
When this transfer of power did not happen as swiftly as some had hoped we had the Civil War of 1642–1651, between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians, which temporarily ended the monarchy altogether, until the Restoration of 1660 and the crowning of Charles II.
Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come
This impetus was partly economic, with the emerging middle classes wanting more political clout to match their growing financial muscle. But it was also driven by fresh thinking – the mass of the population still had virtually no money or voice, but they could afford to consume ideas, which were free (and becoming more readily available thanks to the invention of printing).
In the early part of the middle ages religious belief held the entire population in a firm grip, with church and state working hand in hand to promote the essential rightness of the idea that society, and indeed the whole universe, was hierarchical. If you were at the bottom, or the top, that was how God meant it to be – so just accept your lot and wait for heaven, where things will be a whole lot better.
But then we had the Reformation, which undermined faith in the institution of the church. This was followed by the Renaissance and fresh ways of thinking that made people feel less beholden to God and more interested in human potential. The Enlightenment, which occurred in the 18th century, was in some ways a continuation of the same process. Intellectuals elevated reason above faith and challenged accepted ways of doing things in every sphere of life from religious belief to scientific endeavour and the best form of government to the principles of economics.
The peasants are revolting
The Enlightenment culminated in the French Revolution. For the first time ever the have have nots rebelled, en masse. The middle classes, some of whom initially welcomed the overthrow of the aristocracy and the new power this bestowed on the bourgeoisie, were alarmed to discover that they could not maintain control. There were ten years of bloody chaos until Napoleon came along and restored order – but the order of a republic, not a monarchy.
I remember revising for the classic exam question “What were the causes of the French Revolution?” The list covered at least 10 points, but the one that sticks in my mind was that “it was a revolution of rising expectations”. By that it meant that the flood of Enlightenment ideas, and the higher living standards being enjoyed by the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, led the masses to expect more for themselves. Marie Antoinette’s famous remark “Let them eat cake” was curiously apposite – the masses didn’t just want bread, but a bit of gateau as well.
The rise and rise of the working class
The French Revolution sent a wave of panic through other European monarchies where ruling elites were struggling to contain the same rising tide of expectations. The dominant theme of 19th century European history is the struggle between the working classes, whose labour was becoming more economically important thanks to the Industrial Revolution, and a property-owning establishment terrified of revolution, yet unwilling to give concessions.
The Reform Act of 1832 gave more people the vote and made parliament slightly more accountable to the people. The Reform Act of 1867 went further, enfranchising part of the urban male working class in England and Wales for the first time. In 1884 the Third Reform Act, and the Redistribution Act of the following year, extended the same voting qualifications to the countryside. Having said that, the suffrage was still severely limited – until the Representation of the People Act of 1918 only 58% of the male population were eligible to vote. Once it was passed all men over the age of 21 could vote. What’s more, women got the vote for the first time – but only those over 30 who met certain property qualifications (a mere 40% of the female population).
This transfer of political power from the haves to the have nots was achieved by a working class that became aware of its collective bargaining power, encouraged by intellectuals such as Marx and Engels. At the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th there was a titanic ongoing struggle between communists, socialists, anarchists and trade unions on the one side and the establishment, the capitalists and the bourgeoisie on the other. In Britain the haves conducted an orderly retreat and the process was accomplished by negotiations and strikes, speeded up by the cataclysmic effects of the First World War, and then the Second. In other countries, like Russia, the tilt in the balance of power, both economic and political, was swift and brutal. In Germany and the former Hapsburg Empire a new order only emerged after the entire state was effectively pulverised by war and its wider effects.
Brave New World
The final chapter in this story starts in 1945, with the world heaving a collective sigh of relief at the return of peace. In Britain the two world wars and the Great Depression (1929-39) had disrupted economic growth and the rise of the have nots stalled. But all that now changed. The Labour Party won a landslide victory, introducing sweeping reforms – taxes were increased, industries were nationalised, and a welfare state with national health, pensions, and social security was created. The next 15 years saw some of the most rapid growth Britain had ever experienced. In 1957 Tory PM Harold McMillan declared that “most of our people have never had it so good.” The have nots now had enough to enjoy a relatively comfortable existence.
However, the have nots in America were doing even better still. While Britain was recovering nicely, despite the loss of her empire and having to pay off the huge costs of the two wars, the US was riding a huge wave of prosperity that had been surging largely unchecked since their Civil War. Life in America was transformed out of all recognition for the have nots by a series of technological revolutions.
Most of the population, emigrants from Europe, eked out a tough existence on the land. In 1870, almost 50 percent of the US population was employed in agriculture. By 2008 the figure was less than 2 percent. In the 19th century these settlers were separated from civilization by vast distances and their life moved at the speed of the horse. Even the most basic tasks, such as getting water for drinking or washing clothes, were backbreaking chores – in many ways they were peasants again, albeit free ones (free to starve if the rains didn’t come and the crops failed, or prices fell).
The invention of electricity gave them light and the means to power the appliances that followed. General Electric called these “electric servants” and they swiftly liberated women from domestic slavery. The invention of the telephone suddenly put them in immediate touch with the rest of the world. The railroad did the same with 20 miles of track being laid every day between 1870 and 1900. Then there was the introduction of the automobile, whose price plummeted by 63% between 1912 and 1930 – the proportion of American households with access to a car increased over that period from just over 2% to 89.8%.
The Second World War, which put life on hold for Europeans, merely accelerated the growth in the American economy and the rise in living standards for its citizens. This ushered in the 1950s and 1960s, a golden age of prosperity in which even people with no more than a high-school education could enjoy a steady job, a house in the suburbs and a safe retirement, with every confidence that their kids would do even better still. The American Dream had reached full maturity and expectations amidst the masses had never been running higher.
The arrival of Mad Men and Happy Days
The emergence of mass production, and mass transportation, accompanied by rising wages, led to mass marketing. By the start of the 20th century, Sears Roebuck, a mail-order company that was founded in 1893, was fulfilling 100,000 orders a day from a catalogue of 1,162 pages. Many of today’s big brands can trace their roots back to this era – Heinz Ketchup 1876, Coca Cola 1886, GE 1889, Levis 501 Jeans 1890s, Palmolive Soap 1898, Gillette 1901, Ford 1903, Kelloggs 1906, Hoover 1908, IBM 1911, Marlboro 1926, Tide 1946.
At around the same time the first big advertising and brand building agencies, many of which still exist in one form or another, were born in New York and Chicago – J Walter Thomson 1864, McCanns 1912, Young & Rubicam 1923, Leo Burnett 1935, Ogilvy & Mather 1948, Doyle Dane Bernbach 1949.
The growth of the marketing industry was further fuelled by the invention of new media such as radio, then television, followed by the explosion of digital and online. Happy days! On the one hand we had steadily rising wages and the postwar baby boom driving up demand. On the other there were big corporations making new stuff faster than ever before as well as marketers selling features, benefits and the sheer life enhancing value of whatever they were pushing. This created what is now described as the consumer society, “a society in which the buying and selling of goods and services is the most important social and economic activity” (Oxford Dictionary).
Those whose ancestors were have nots couldn’t believe their luck. The masses in North America and Europe seemed to have it all. Not just Marie Antoinette’s cake, but Starbucks, Crispy Crème Donuts, Big Macs, Häagen-Dazs, and Dominos delivered to the door. To say nothing of iPhones, Nike sportswear, SUVs, Manolo Blahnik shoes, Panasonic TVs, and Bayliner sports boats. Forget the revolution, I’m going shopping.
While it appeared that things just couldn’t get any better they were actually starting to get a little worse. In the 1970s US companies began to struggle against growing foreign competition, particularly from Japan. Fuel prices surged thanks to aggressive action by OPEC. Productivity, which had been growing healthily, began to tail off.
Over the last forty years the US economy (and those of other developed countries) has been battling some strong headwinds. This initially made life less comfortable for blue collar workers. Then their white collar colleagues, and even those in the professions, discovered that maintaining the same standard of living was requiring greater efforts. To make matters worse, job security plummeted, thanks to a perfect storm of automation, declining union power, free-trade agreements, ever increasing global competition and the offshoring of jobs to countries that pay rock bottom wages.
Despite this, GDP continued to climb (notwithstanding some sharp recessions). The rewards, however, were distributed very unevenly. Figures released in 2015 by the Economic Policy Unit showed that those with very high wages have seen a 41% increase since 1979. Middle-wage workers’ hourly wages rose just 6% over the same period. That’s a rise of less than 0.2% a year and lower than inflation, which at times has been rampant. Low-wage workers fared even worse – their hourly pay actually fell by 5%.
The result is that middle-class America is feeling financially precarious. Neal Gabler, writing in The Atlantic magazine this May, states that many millions of those in this group are living in a “more or less continual state of financial peril”. He quotes figures from the Federal Reserve which show that 47% of consumers, if faced with a $400 emergency bill, would “not be able to come up with the $400 at all” unless they sold something or borrowed the money. That’s almost half the population with no cash to spare, which obviously includes many who qualify as middle-class. The date confirms this – 44% of middle-income families said they would struggle to raise the money.
If you want further proof that times are getting harder for Americans look at the mortality rates. These are rising, while life expectancy is falling. Princeton professors Anne Case and Angus Deaton note that this change is especially marked amongst less educated middle-aged white people between 1990 and 2010, due to drug and alcohol misuse and suicide. Martin Wolf, writing in the Financial Times, notes that “It is tough to fail in a culture that worships personal success.”
Salt in the wound
This income divergence between the upper levels of US society and the rest has produced a staggering level of inequality. Figures from the Institute for Policy Studies show that the wages of America’s top 10 percent are now nearly nine times higher than those of the bottom 90 percent. But if you think that’s bad look at the top 1 per cent – they average over 38 times more income than the bottom 90 percent. But that gap pales in comparison to the divide between the nation’s top 0.1 percent and everyone else. Americans at this lofty level are taking in over 184 times the income of the bottom 90 percent.
The inequality trends are similar in all the major economies. In 1980 the average FTSE 100 top executive earned 25 times as much as the average employee in the same company. By 2007 the multiple had risen to 120. Last year it stood at 130. I could quote you any number of eye-watering statistics, but this one really caught my attention. According to figures from Oxfam half the world’s riches are owned by just 62 billionaires. And the consolidation continues apace – last year that fifty percent was spread out amongst 80 billionaires.
The American dream didn’t die. It was stolen
Lower wages in real terms, longer working hours, less security and opportunity, foreign workers driving down wages and taking jobs, an increasingly heavy tax burden, exorbitant costs for healthcare and education, meagre pension returns that promise a miserable retirement…the list of things to piss you off just goes on and on.
But the thing that really riles people is the fact that, despite their pain, the rich and powerful are doing better than ever before. Despite the thousand year struggle to create a fairer society, one where the power and wealth and opportunities were shared out relatively equitably, we’re back where we started – a handful of people have it all and the rest have virtually nothing. The average drone, if they’re lucky, might have a JOB. And you know what that spells? Just Over Broke.
It has slowly dawned on the mass of people that, while they were so busy shopping, they’ve been shafted. The wealthy, the top dogs at the big corporations and the politicians have rigged the rules in their own favour. As super-rich New Yorker Leona Helmsley once famously remarked “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes”. Chief executives have no qualms about awarding themselves, and their mates, huge remuneration packages even though profits, stock market valuations and earnings to shareholders have plummeted. Corporation earning billions game the system to pay derisory sums of tax. Governments sanction offshore tax havens that allow companies and individuals to siphon off wealth, leaving the rest of us to fill the holes. Bankers get fabulously rich playing fast and loose with other people’s money, then the politicians bail them out, condemning ordinary taxpayers and workers to years of austerity.
No wonder so many people in the US, and other developed countries, are so pissed off.
So what has this got to do with marketing?
First of all, the marketing industry brainwashed us into buying stuff we didn’t need, with money we didn’t have, to impress people we didn’t even know or like. This created and sustained the consumer demand which has been fuelling the growth. That growth, in turn, produced the wealth which the rich, the corporations and their political chums then skimmed off.
Previous generations had a clear focus on improving their lot in life. They took to the streets, joined unions and went on strike for better working conditions, more rights and greater power.
What have we been doing? Cruising the aisles in Waitrose for the latest artisan breads, worrying about what lampshades to put in the guest room, bargain hunting for cut price brands at designer outlets, trying to decide whether we’re a Boden type person or more Superdry, checking the latest prices on Easyjet for breaks in Rome, discussing the relative merits of Starbucks vs Caffe Nero, and then posting pictures on Facebook to show the wonderful middle class lifestyle we’ve created for ourselves.
Marketing has not only been the engine of demand – it has also replaced religion as the opium of the people, distracting, duping and doping us while we are slowly being disempowered, over worked and driven into debt. Only now are people, beginning to feel the pinch at last, starting to realise “we’ve been robbed!”
The economics and politics of desire
Remember the phrase “a revolution of rising expectations”? That’s what marketing is creating right now. Despite the fact that we have pretty much all the material possessions we need (and then some), that our credit cards are maxxed out and that we’re in debt up to our ears with mortgages and car loans, the marketing industry has the pedal pressed to the metal, relentlessly revving up our desires to fever pitch.
The haves need us to keep consuming. That’s why the level of consumer spending is reported on the news every month – it’s a key indicator of the country’s overall economic health.
After 9/11, what did President Bush tell people to do? Grieve, pray, hope? No, he said that the patriotic duty of citizens was to SHOP! Was that just another random ridiculous Bushism? No he was taking his cue from economists. Eisenhower’s Council of Economic Advisors Chairman said, at the end of World War II, when the government of the US was trying to figure out how to ramp up the economy even further, that the American economy’s ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods. At around the same time, retail analyst, Victor Le Beau declared that “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption…we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”
Read that carefully. Because the marketing industry has followed his injunction the letter. How do you get people, who are now struggling to muster the requisite disposable income, and who already have all the products they need to satisfy their practical needs, to buy even more? You pull off the trick by doing exactly what Mr Le Beau advised and giving your strategy a sharp twist. You stop selling tangible features, you stop selling practical benefits. Instead, you switch to selling the emotional, spiritual and ego benefits. You ruthlessly identify people’s innermost fears and dreams, insecurities and desires, then relentlessly exploit them to stoke up the kind of hunger that is almost impossible to resist. When marketing people highlight the need to acquire “consumer insight” this is what they are really talking about – finding new ways to screw people up inside so they can then present their product as the spiritual solution.
I’ve messed with your head so give me your money
I’ve been a copywriter for almost 40 years. In that time I’ve closely studied current best practice in the art of getting people to buy stuff. That means I am more aware than most of the switch just described above.
I could give you a thousand examples. But here’s just a handful. John Lewis came up with the “Never knowingly oversold” line in 1925. You cannot get a more logical and practical selling proposition than that. For the last few years their TV commercials, especially at Christmas, have been totally and utterly about the emotions of giving and receiving, with not a product or price tag in sight – they’ve gone totally Disney on us, serving up a series of saccharine laden schmaltz fests.
In the 70’s and 80’s BMW, the most Teutonic of car brands, was promoted as the “Ultimate driving machine”. The marketing people scrupulously interrogated the product and its engineers to dig up practical features to substantiate this claim with tangible points of difference.
But in recent years this messaging has been overlaid with lines like “Sheer driving pleasure” and ads that are purely about the experience.
In the 80’s Timberland was doing much the same as BMW, focusing on how the shoes were made.
In recent years they’ve switch the approach entirely. The message is now all about the type of person they enable you to become.
Just look at recent McDonalds ads. Their lonely hearts commercial is a cracker. Worried about being a sad singleton? Order a Big Mac with a Strawberry Milkshake and you’ll find some love to go.
Finally, I opened this week’s copy of The Economist and saw a Hyundai ad that sums up everything I’m saying about the way the emphasis has shifted from how the product is made to how the product makes you feel.
The journey this product enables you to make has ceased to be physical and become entirely spiritual. It doesn’t close the gap between places, but people. The message could not be more clear – if you want to find fulfilment and really live life to the full, you need a Hyundai.
Disappointment comes as standard
Even as people are beginning to realise that life cannot carry on getting better and better, for ever and ever, the marketing industry continues to prod away at our hopes and fears, promising not just material improvements in our lifestyle but succour for our soul.
This has created a sense of entitlement. Whereas our forebears were content to have a roof over their heads and food on the table we now believe happiness is our birth right too – because you’re worth it!
As we discover, however, Big Macs, Timberland shoes, shopping trips to John Lewis and the latest models of BMW and Hyundai do not deliver on their inflated spiritual promises – we’re still left with a gnawing hunger for a sense of acceptance, recognition, confidence, accomplishment and meaning.
Donald Trump – made by Mad Men
Throughout history smart operators have exploited situations where a flood of rising expectations has produced feelings of mass discontent, frustration and resentment – Wat Tyler, Danton, Robespierre, Lenin, Mao and Hitler, to name but a few.
That’s the situation the world finds itself in right now. And we have a rash of populist leaders capitalising on it – Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen (France’s National Front), Beppe Grillo (Italy’s Five Star Movement), Norbert Hofer (Austrian Freedom Party), Geert Wilders (Dutch Party for Freedom). In recent days Boris Johnson has become more stridently populist and in the Philippines they have just elected a very scary Rodrigo “Rody” Roa Duterte.
Donald Trump is not an isolated wild card, a joker. He’s just the latest in a progressions of demagogues who have hijacked history for their own ends, often with disastrous consequences for the rest of us. And he’s smart. As a star of reality TV, he understands how to play the media and the audience.
If you don’t like him you need to understand why so many others do. That means gaining an awareness of the thousand year process that has shaped the society in which we live today. What’s more, as consumers, we need to wise up about how marketing is creating conditions in which he, and those like him, thrive. Finally, if you work in marketing, I suggest it’s time to ask what kind of a world we are helping to create – how much damage are we doing when we mess with the heads and hearts of our target audience, just to entice them into buying another lip gloss or burger? Instead of more consumer insights let’s have a bit of hindsight and foresight.
Picture credit, Donald Trump: Gage Skidmore
Since writing this post we’ve had the vote in favour of leaving the EU. I think a lot of the same factors that explain Trump’s popularity did the same for Boris, Farage and the leave campaign. Maybe the haves were not wrong to be wary of giving the vote to people with little in the way of savings, property or prospects to lose? Funny old world!