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Marketing the President: Political Marketing

After Super Tuesday, print and broadcast media have woken up to the very real possibility of President Donald J. Trump. But they can’t seem to understand that their own decline is a major reason for his success. Win or lose, Trump has changed the face of media and politics alike. It’s a simple formula: new media + reality TV = new media reality. In the United States, 88 percent of the population can get online. For the first time, there is a universal national medium that is interactive. In 2008, new media analyst Clay Shirky borrowed a phrase from James Joyce to describe what’s happening: “Here comes everybody.” In 2016, we might say: “Here comes Trump’s new media reality.” We watch TV. We go online. It’s the difference between passive and active that makes new media so disruptive, to use the favorite Silicon Valley word. And the results are, in this case, really transformative. Trump gets it. He destroyed Jeb Bush in two words: “low energy.” Why waste huge sums on 30-second TV ads when you can knock out a candidate in 140 characters sent immediately to over six million of your best friends? Six million is both Trump’s Twitter following and his number ofFacebook “likes.”

(How Donald Trump broke the media, quoted in “The


March 4, 2016 by Nicholas Mirzoeff, Professor ofMedia, Culture and Communication, New York University.

Abstract This chapter discusses the presidential campaign of 2016 and with the unorthodox campaign of Donald Trump, the candidate of the Republican Party for the presidency. Trump used the social media, and Twitter in © The Author(s) 2016

A.A. Berger, Marketing and American Consumer Culture, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-47328-4_10

particular, and other “free media” to gain the attention of Republican voters. It considers some of the deficiencies of the campaigns of other Republicans seeking the nomination, with a focus on Jeb Bush’s campaign. It deals with the importance of personality in politics and then explores the notion that many of Trump’s supporters can be described as “working class authoritarians.” It quotes from a book that argues that it is ironic that in America the elites, not the masses, that are most committed to democratic values. Next, it offers statistics about illiteracy and the low level of education of many Americans and the problem this creates for democracy in America. It concludes with a discussion ofthe problem Trump faces with a general election, in which he must also appeal to Democrats and Independents to win the presidency.

Keywords Politics • Campaigns • Social media • Twitter • Personality • Illiteracy

The Selling of the President is the book that catapulted Joe McGinnis to nearly icon-status at the age of twenty-five in 1969. At the time, it was a shockingly revealing book at how presidential candidate Richard Nixon was being sold—gasp—like a product. The original book jacket featured Nixon’s face on a pack of cigarettes, as if the notion of Madison Avenue ad-men playing a pivotal role in a presidential campaign was dirty. The book became such a classic that it remains assigned reading in many government classes to this day.

John B. Maggiore on May 16, 2000 review of The Selling of the President.

The presidential election campaign of 2015-2016 was one of the most remarkable one’s ever held. The Republican Party staged twelve debates, each of which was seen by millions of people. And the Democratic Party staged six debates and forums. These debates and forums can be seen as a form of marketing—or, in the case of the Republican debates, in which Donald Trump has been the major figure, reverse marketing because they have turned so many people off.

The debate in March was perhaps the nadir, in which Trump made reference to the size of his penis. In that debate, Marco Rubio and Donald Cruz attacked Trump for two hours as being a con-man, a fraud, and a liar, for having a long record of failures, and so on—and yet, at the end of the debate, said they would support him if he were the candidate.

The quotation in the epigraph, by Nicholas Mirzoeff, deals with the unorthodox nature of the Trump campaign. Perhaps “revolutionary” is a better term. He spent relatively little money on his campaign for television and radio commercials and yet won the nomination for the Republican Party. We can contrast his media expenses with those of Jeb Bush who spent around $130 million dollars on his lamentable campaign, which had no impact on his race. Despite all the money Bush raised, he was forced to withdraw his candidacy, a remarkable case study of wasted money.

Advertising Age published some statistics on campaign spending with some interesting results (Feb. 26, 2016). I offer the statistics rounded off.





Trump: $11,500,000


Bush: $4,630,000


Rubio: $17,000,000


What we find is that Bush and Rubio were the two largest spenders on advertising and had the least to show for it. Trump spent almost nothing on SuperPACS but spent almost twelve million dollars for advertising and related matters. What these figures make us ask is whether political advertising’s effectiveness is diminishing. It can be argued that Trump’s campaign is essentially all marketing and little advertising.

An analysis that appeared in Politico suggests that the Bush campaign was poorly planned and executed.

Looking back now after his early exit from a nomination battle he vowed to be in “for the long haul,” his slow, awkward stumble from August through October encapsulates everything that caused the operation viewed as “Jeb!, Inc.” to fail. Bush was on the wrong side of the most galvanizing issues for Republican primary voters; he himself was a rusty and maladroit campaigner and his campaign was riven by internal disagreements and a crippling fear that left it paralyzed and unable to react to Trump.

The problem, many donors say they believe, is that there wasn’t anyone on the team who both recognized his shortcomings and was willing to point them out to the principal himself.... The entire premise of Bush’s candidacy now looks like a misread of an electorate that wasn’t amenable to establishment candidates—and a misunderstanding of a modern media environment ill-suited to a policy wonk who speaks in paragraphs, not punchy sound bites. He couldn’t sell experience to an electorate that wanted emotion. He couldn’t escape his last name. His millions couldn’t buy popular support. Given how the race has gone, the real mystery of Jeb Bush’s campaign isn’t why he failed—but why anyone ever thought he would succeed.

Glenn Thrush and Alex Isenstadt contributed to this report.

Read more: bush-dropping-out-set-up-to-fail-213662#ixzz427LEGSNv

The conclusion to this analysis points out an ironic situation. When I heard that Jeb Bush had entered the race and that some Republican donors had contributed more than a hundred million dollars in funding for a Bush Super Pac, I assumed, like many people, that he probably would be the nominee. But that assumption was based on the way campaigns used to be run, in which money for political advertising was crucial. I recognized that the Bush name was a problem, and that many Americans disliked the idea of having yet another Bush as president, but I thought that problem could be overcome.

What I didn’t recognize is that the Trump candidacy would rewrite the rules for campaigning and political advertising and that his insults, his sensational and some would say irrational policy announcements, which gathered an enormous amount of attention in the press, served him as a functional equivalent of traditional radio and television commercials. And he used social media, Twittering away, endlessly, on any subject that attracted his attention.

There is also, ironically, the impact of the Citizen’s United decision by the Supreme Court that must be considered. An article by Anthony J. Gaughan that appeared in the “Conversation” website (May 13, 2015) explains the matter. Gaughan writes in “Cash is not king: Jeb Bushs Super PAC problem,” May 13, 2015, that the Citizen’s United decision weakened the power of political parties:

In January 2010, the campaign finance system changed dramatically when the Supreme Court decided Citizens United v Federal Election Commission. Citizens United turned on the question of whether the FEC could restrict campaign advertisements by independent political committees that do not coordinate their activities with candidates or parties. In a deeply divided opinion, a narrow majority of the justices ruled against the FEC. The ruling effectively exempted Super PACs and other independent groups from FECA’s contribution limits. Campaign expenditures have skyrocketed ever since. The 2012 election cost an all-time record of $7 billion. The 2016 campaign will undoubtedly surpass that record. The massive influx of Super PAC money has severely eroded the influence of the party establishment. Super PACs enable candidates to mount well-funded primary campaigns without any establishment support whatsoever. Indeed, in a post-Citizens United world, all a candidate needs in order to run for president is a billionaire willing to fund a Super PAC on the candidate’s behalf.

Or, a billionaire, like Trump, who uses the news media to run for president at relatively little expense. Until the current campaign, politicians courted billionaires to get money to pay for television commercials and other forms of advertising. Now, the influence of advertising on presidential campaigns has been diluted.

The Trump campaign has also led to numerous comments by reporters and political commentators about the importance of Trump’s “outsize” personality. In 1975, Fred I. Greenstein, a professor of politics, law and society at Princeton University, wrote a book titled Personality & Politics: Problems of Evidence, Inference and Conceptualization. He writes, in his first chapter on “The Study of Personality and Politics” (1975:1):

My most primitive assumption is that politics frequently is influenced in important ways by factors that are commonly summarized by the term “personality.” I am regularly struck by how, as one’s perspective on political activity becomes closer and more detailed, the political actors begin to loom as full-blown individuals who are influenced in politically relevant ways by the various strengths and weaknesses to which the human species is subject.

Greenstein admits that the term “personality” can be defined and understood in many different ways and his book is an exploration of different meanings of the term and the way it is being used by people studying politics.

The same year that Greenstein published his book, an important textbook on American politics was published—The Irony of Democracy: An Uncommon Introduction to American Politics, 3rd edition, by Thomas R. Dye and L. Harmon Ziegler. They write in the first chapter (1975:14):

It is the irony of democracy in America that elites, not masses, are most committed to democratic values. Despite a superficial commitment to the symbols of democracy, the American people have a surprisingly weak commitment to individual liberty, toleration of diversity, or freedom of expression for those who would challenge the existing order. Social science research reveals that the common man is not attached to the causes of liberty, fraternity, or equality. On the contrary, support for free speech and press, for freedom of dissent, and for equality of opportunity for all is associated with high educational levels, prestigious occupations, and high social status. Authoritarianism is stronger among the working classes in America than among the middle and upper classes. Democracy would not survive if it depended upon support for democratic values among the masses in America.

Dye and Ziegler also discuss counter-elites who are “mass-oriented leaders who express hostility toward the established order and appeal to mass sentiments—extremism, intolerance, racial identity, anti-intellectualism, equalitarianism, and violence.” This seems to describe Trump very well.

They cite the work of Herbert McClosky who administered a national survey on attitude and personality attributes of almost 1500 Americans. His findings can be found in the following chart that I have created based on textual material in the Dye and Ziegler book (1975:154):

Elites/Educated Pubic

Uneducated Public

Psychological flexibility Intellectuality

Literalism and conservatism

Marginality, no identification with one’s class Dichotomous or black-and-white thinking Political alienation, extreme beliefs

There is, then, a strong correlation between level of education and democratic thinking and political behavior. People who are uneducated do not read very much, as a rule, and are poorly informed about matters of public concern.

Consider these statistics on illiteracy in America, taken from The Huffington The report is based on data collected by the United States Department of Education.

  • 14% of adults in the USA can’t read
  • 21% of adults in the USA read below the 5th grade level
  • 19% of high school graduates can’t read
  • 85% of juveniles in the court system are functionally illiterate
  • 70% of inmates in USA prisons can’t read above the 4th grade level

The picture that emerges is of a public that lacks education and thus tends to be politically naive and uninformed. And, sadly, these statistics haven’t changed very much in the last ten years (http://www.huffingtonpost. com/2013/09/06/illiteracy-rate_n_3880355.html).

This kind of a public would find a person like Trump impressive and identify with him and his personality traits. He insults people, makes racist comments, and changes his mind from day to day about policy matters. And he keeps reminding people how wealthy he is and telling audiences at is rallies and on debates how successful he is. And large numbers of people in America believe him and refuse to recognize that he has had a number of failures as a businessman.

When Mitt Romney, in an attempt to halt Trump’s march to the nomination for the Republic party, made a speech listing Trump’s business failures: Trump airlines, Trump vodka, Trump mortgages, Trump University, and so on, Trump dismissed Romney’s speech by attacking Romney as someone who lost an election he should have won and pointing out that Romney’s campaign gratefully accepted money from Trump in the 2012 presidential campaign.

We are left, then, with an understanding of Trump’s success: he appeals primarily to authoritarian, simplistic, and uninformed Americans who see him as their spokesman and who harbor resentment against American educated elites. Trump is a spokesman for what we might call “The Revolt of the Masses,” in which large numbers of people no longer accept the ideas and domination by political elites. That helps explain why Jeb! Bush was such a failure. He represented American political elites (the “Bush” name and a possible Bush dynasty), was a policy wonk, and he wore glasses— signifiers of his status as someone “educated.” He got rid of his eyeglasses late in the campaign but it was too late. Once characterized by Trump as “low energy,” Bush flailed away but despite spending huge amounts of money on advertising, he never won a state or even came close to winning one. His campaign goes down in history as one of the most expensive and least successful presidential campaigns in history and Trump’s campaign remains a triumph of marketing and of the power of celebrity and personality to affect politics.

It is estimated that Trump has received around two billion dollars’ worth of free publicity, which helps explain why he has spent so little on advertising—relative to his opponents. He’s a very active on Twitter and often calls into the radio and television stations to get on the air, which means that when he does that he is getting free publicity. The hosts on these shows benefit from getting higher ratings, so Trump and the hosts of news shows have a symbiotic relationship: he gets free publicity and they get higher ratings. His success with members of the Republican party has not repeated itself in the general election when he has to appeal to Democrats and Independents, and, as I write this, he is behind in many important states and in national polls.

And yet, it is still conceivable that he will win the presidency having spent, relatively speaking, very little on advertising. Whether democracy is well served by the Trump campaign and the way the news media has related to him is another matter.

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