Stuart Elliott: Six Things Madison Avenue (May Have) Learned From the Election

By Stuart Elliott Report Archives
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This is not a drill: President Trump. Repeat, this is not a drill.

The political and policy implications of the Trumpquake that has hit America are outside the purview of this column. What I'd like to offer here instead are some thoughts on what it may mean for the advertising, marketing and media industries in the form of lessons to be learned from his astonishing victory.

1. Advertising may be dead, but marketing rules.

Hillary Clinton's inability to win the presidency despite her huge advantage in the ad war is suggesting to many that paid advertising -- especially when it interrupts what people actually want to see, read or listen to -- is on its way out. On the other hand, Donald Trump marketed his way into the White House with a deft combination of branding and self-promotion. Of course, it helped that he already was a media figure with a defined image, but he out-marketed Clinton among key demographic groups such as white working-class voters.

It reminds me of the moment in The Hucksters, the classic movie about Madison Avenue, when Sydney Greenstreet, as a soap tycoon lecturing his agency's executives, spits on his own conference table. "You have just seen me do a disgusting thing," he says. "But you will always remember it." From the moment in Trump's presidential announcement speech when he accused Mexico of sending "drugs, crime and rapists" to this country, he spent the next 17 months saying one disgusting thing after another. But now he will be remembered as the 45th President.

2. Don't tell people what you want to tell them, or tell them in a condescending way how to think. Instead, figure out what they want to hear -- and say it over and over again. It doesn't matter whether you believe it or not.

Trump stuck to a handful of uplifting, patriotic messages and reiterated them incessantly: "Make America great again," "Build the wall," "America first," "Make America strong again," "Drain the swamp." Again, I'm reminded of The Hucksters, when Greenstreet tells his new adman, played by Clark Gable, his philosophy of what makes a great radio commercial: "Beautee soap, Beautee soap, Beautee soap. Repeat it until it comes out of their ears. Repeat it until they say it in their sleep."

3. Big data, small data, who cares? The hell with it. Go with your gut.

Trump excelled at playing his hunches, such as his targeting of Clinton's rust-belt and upper Midwest "blue wall" states like Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The experts and pundits scratched their heads, but as of this writing he's been declared the winner in Wisconsin, is leading in Michigan and barely lost Minnesota.

Relying on intuition also is part of Trump's disdain of expertise ("I know ISIS better than our generals -- really"), which perhaps points to trouble ahead for anyone who sells his or her intellectual or analytical skills to an agency, client or media outlet. Attention consultants, who might need to look for another line of work. As for pollsters and others who survey consumers, good luck. The experts were wondering why the polls after the FBI letters about Clinton's emails turned out to be wrong; who's to say they were right before the letters?

4. Be authentic, even if you have to fake it.

Everyone laughed when Trump, Mr. Tell It Like It Is, mocked Clinton for her preparation for the debates. But who's got the last laugh now? If preparation is overrated, so, too, are polish, measured efforts, nuance, studying and studies. Maybe ads from now on will be more direct and less clever or arty. And maybe they'll look less professional and more as if they were created by consumers, which could mean a comeback for user-generated content.

Also on tap, I bet, will be more ads in the "Real people. Not actors" genre as exemplified by the long-running series of spots for Chevrolet. And given the beating meted out on social media to stars who endorsed and worked for Clinton, I imagine there could be fewer ad campaigns next year with celebrity endorsers.

5. Try not to forget what the forgotten like.

Trump's focus on those he deemed left out of Obama's and Clinton's America is likely to be emulated in ads that celebrate those consumers. Don't be surprised if there's an outpouring of campaigns devoted to no-nonsense, everyday people, a throwback to the "Miller time" commercials for Miller High Life that offered paeans to the working class.

From a creative perspective, it wouldn't be shocking to see a wave of ads with broad, direct appeals and frat-house humor, reminiscent of a style that was popular in the early 2000s when commercials featured characters such as a dog trained to bite crotches, a flatulent horse and a man tormented by a bikini waxing. And, much as it pains me to say it, I wouldn't be surprised if casting directors were asked to find for commercials more "bro" types and fewer Trevor Noah types.

6. Media owners need to find some wartime consiglieres.

It's a good bet that Trump will preside over the most press-unfriendly administration since Richard Nixon's, given the success of his diatribes against the media during the campaign. Those attacks may have inoculated him from fallout from the scandalous scoops that emanated from mainstream media such as The New York Times (Trump's taxes) and The Washington Post (his foundation and the "Access Hollywood" tape). If Trump's supporters already believed the media were out to get him, why would they pay attention to anything that was said about him?

In the movie A Face in the Crowd, in which Andy Griffith plays a Trump-like demagogue, he has a "hot mic" moment, which wrecked his career. Trump was luckier; his "hot mic" moment wrecked Billy Bush's career.

There's plenty to be said about the media's early misjudgment of Trump, when they used him as clickbait or to generate ratings and overlooked the potential detrimental effects of all that free exposure. But I'll leave that to those with more experience with journalism or post-mortems. CSI: Pulitzer Committee?

Of course, as the Vichy French would tell you, there's always accommodation. For instance, People magazine sent out a series of cheery tweets about the Trumps the day after the election, including one that promised "22 photos of Ivanka Trump and her family that are way too cute."

As someone I follow on Twitter, David Ehrlich, pointed out to the magazine: "Her father sexually assaulted one of your writers."         

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