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Selling A President 2020

Mar 16, 2020

Fear sells.  Anger motivates.  In "Fear Sells," episode one of the DeVito/Verdi podcast "Selling a President 2020," host Ellis Verdi and some of the most creative minds in advertising look at the marketing phenomenon that is Donald Trump.

As he showed in 2016, candidate Trump appealed to voters with ads and speeches that more or less preyed on people’s fears and stoked their anger.  As he pushes for re-election, we discuss how his marketing is so on brand, how it has created such an intensely loyal following and why anger, fear and rage are so effective in the selling of a President, 2020.

Transcript Episode One "Fear Sells"

GREG [00:00:00] I think what people understand is how much Trump's behaviors are on brand. Right. So if he slept with your wife, that is completely on his brand in that it only supports him. 

ELLIS [00:00:16] Forget the stump speech the whistle stops and the kissing of babies. A candidate gets elected today largely through his or her advertising. On November 3rd, America will go to the voting booths and select the next president of the United States. Tens of millions of dollars will have been spent on selling the candidates to the country. Advertising's outsized role in the packaging of a president is what this podcast is all about. I thought it would be a fun idea to gather, some of the creative minds of advertising, along with some younger creative directors and political pros to play judge and jury with today's presidential political advertising. I'm Ellis Verdi and this is Selling a President 2020. We're not concerned with Right or Left, urban or rural, deplorable or elitist. Our attention is on how the candidates are making their pitch to the American public. After all, Election Day is democracy's one day sale. As we say in advertising, 

ELLIS [00:01:16] Fear sells, anger motivates.  This episode. we'll take a look at how the president's marketing is so on brand, how it has created such an intensely loyal following and why anger, fear and rage are so effective in the selling of a president in 2020. Donald Trump is not the first to employ fear mongering in his appeal to voters or distort facts to discredit opponents and burnish his own image. But it clearly feels different this time around. This is Season 1, episode 1. “Fear Sells.”

STUART [00:01:50] It used to be that if you were running negative advertising, you would least mix in some positive advertising to dull the idea that you are a son of a bitch. 

ELLIS [00:02:00] Famed New York Times advertising columnist Stuart Elliott. 

STUART [00:02:05] Is that out the window now? Because Trump is just always on the attack. He's always angry and he's always attacking. And if there's nothing to attack, he'll make something up. 

LEE [00:02:13] Now, I think that the scary thing for me now, is you would count on facts and statistics to sway people's opinions. Obviously, you have to present them in a way that's interesting. 

ELLIS [00:02:25] Advertising legend Lee Garfinkel 

LEE [00:02:27] But I think four years ago the idea of facts became less relevant or rational thinking became less relevant. And so there's a big question mark for me right now is how does any candidate go forward and try to break through and actually change people's opinions, knowing that facts may not be the thing that separates you from the other guy? 

GREG [00:02:50] It's emotion. The biggest drivers in behavior are anger and fear in political circles. Chief Creative Officer, BBDO New York. Greg Hahn. So Trump's whole message is going to take something away from you or they're out to get you. And that's just a really powerful emotion. No matter what facts or policy underlying that or counter that, it doesn't matter because he's saying they're going to be something's going to be taken from me. So he really plays up the driving emotion where, you know, he gets that some of the other people are more rational, more fact based. It doesn't matter. Like you're not listening. 

LINDA [00:03:28] I think that look, Trump rewrote the rules. 

ELLIS [00:03:31] Advertising Hall of Famer and author Linda Kaplan Thaler, you know, it didn't really have much to do with these television commercials. 

LINDA [00:03:38] It was just that, you know, he was such an outlier. Everybody discounted him. 

LINDA [00:03:42] And he has sort of taken the reality TV platform and politicized it. And we have to factor that in, too. I think some of his advertising moving forward into the general election is going to be just for the hell of it kind of ads that are just going to be designed to make you laugh or make you freak out, make the other guys freak out. 

STUART [00:04:10] And that's gonna be big. 

STUART [00:04:15] That's gonna be one of his strategies. I think that it's gonna be unusual for political advertising. 

JONATHAN [00:04:21] I do think in terms of Trump, the humor is less about humor for humor's sake or entertainment for entertainment sake. 

ELLIS [00:04:27] Political consultant Jonathan Prince,. 

JONATHAN [00:04:29] As it is another vehicle for him to tap into the undercurrent. 

STUART [00:04:33] Oh, yeah, sure. Not hiring, you know, hiring a comedian to write him polished standup lines. He's doing humor within the context of his base. 

STUART [00:04:42] And what they find funny,. 

JONATHAN [00:04:43] You know, basically like an overlay of some legitimate economic insecurity on top of an enormous amount of horrible racial insecurity, anger and bitterness. And the humor is for people who are angry and fed up. 

GREG [00:04:59] There's a victim in his humor. There's an interesting article recently in The Washington Post that talked about the way Conservatives and Liberals see humor differently. They have different mindsets when it comes to humor, like they brought the point, like you never really have seen a successful conservative late night talk show because that kind of humor is normally based on irony and a certains bit of filling in gaps. They don't close the loop. They allow the viewer to sort of fill in the gaps and understand some context. Whereas conservatives just generally this is a generalization and you know, but they're saying their humor is very surface. It's like it's a form of exaggeration. It's very easily what you see is what you get. It's just a bigger version of that kind of thing. 

ELLIS [00:05:41] And what we've seen him accomplish would make any marketer envious. He's created a level of brand loyalty that is truly remarkable. Polarizing, yes. But that doesn't seem to matter. Knowing that half the country would never buy this brand doesn't change the messaging. He isn't fazed by it. He's found that amplifying people's rage and fear is a winning formula. Sacrilegious or not. Trump has positioned himself to be the savior for those he's targeted. And though it might not expand his brand, it's certainly cementing loyalty. 

GREG [00:06:13] Yeah. Even they'll vote against their best interests in policy. In some ways, because he's enraged them so much. And you know, you're a victim. You're being your way of life is being threatened and he's entertained them. Yeah. 

STUART [00:06:26] And I noticed that aspect, too. Apparently, there are a number of people that don't particularly like him or they don't like his tweets so they don't like how he speaks about women. 

GREG [00:06:39] It's hard to ignore. 

LEE [00:06:40] I mean, I wrote an editorial back in 2016 and I said, what can I possibly do to convince a Trump supporter not to vote for Trump? And I realized after a while, I don't think there's anything that I can do. And I ask people who were Trump's supporters. If you found out that Donald Trump had sex with your wife, would you still vote for him? You know, 99 percent of Trump supporters said, well, she probably had it coming or you probably you know, I wasn't paying attention to it. So, yeah, it's OK. And I realized I think targeting Trump supporters is probably a waste of money. And it's talk to the people that either haven't voted or aren't sure. 

GREG [00:07:19] I think this election is so different because I have a hard time figuring out who's undecided at this point. Like you've had three and a half years of Donald Trump, if you don't know 

if you like him or not,I don't know what's going to convince you, you know, where he stands, you know? You know what you're going to get. 

ELLIS [00:07:34] Chief Creative Officer Tom Christmann,. 

TOM [00:07:36] That is the key, is that as much as a lot of people hate him, he is himself and he's not going to change anything. He's out there being the same character every time. 

STUART [00:07:46] So, you know, there's this theory about Trump and projection that everything Trump says, it's basically projecting back onto people what they've said about him. 

GREG [00:07:56] I think what people understand is how much of Trump's behaviors on brand. Right. So if he slept with your wife, that is completely on his brand in that only supports him. It's only what you expect from him. 

LINDA [00:08:08] I mean, you know, you talk to people with Trump supporters. There's absolutely nothing that man can say that they don't back him on. You know, they come up with all sorts of reasons. Well, I don't look at the Tweets. And I do think he does have a visionary thing, which is it's all  me. And I'm the one you know, I'm the messiah. Only I can fix it. And the people who voted for him, they know he's arrogant and that's what they like. 

TOM [00:08:37] They will point at that and they will say. Kennedy philanderer. Mobbed up. Oh. Johnson, Vietnam War. Liar. You know, like all these things. And they will just, you know, because that is what has happened. 

GREG [00:08:50] I think people vote based on who they identify with and who they feel is out. Yeah, right. Right. For them, even if all the issues aren't there, it's usually one driving issue or personality. 

LEE [00:09:01] And I think what's scary is that almost every late-night comedian does anti-Trump jokes and it makes absolutely no impact. It's a Trump supporter. So they're making the jokes to the people that are already anti-Trump people. Now, how do we start if we want to get someone else in office, how do we start to convince people to think differently? And my concern is from most of the advertising that I looked at from the Democrats, except for maybe Bloomberg, it all feels like techniques and styles that were done in the last 10 years. And so you can't keep doing it the same way and expect a different outcome. 

ELLIS [00:09:38] But can someone who relishes the role of showing his base that arrogance pays and that tact and decorum can go to hell because dammit, he's fighting for their every need to soften his message. After all, he fell short by more than 3 million votes in the last election. 

LINDA [00:09:53] So he did the advertising that he's done. I have to say it is pretty good because all it is, is a lot of people cheering and just, you know, best economy in 50 years. 

STUART [00:10:03] It's Morning in America revisited. Right. Let's also remember the famous Reagan reelection campaign. 

JONATHAN [00:10:10] But the thing is, the ads, the ads that are doing totally different pieces of work. The Trump ad is not designed to persuade anybody. All right. The Trump ad is simply designed to flex in front of an audience of supporters that wants them to flex. I think if Trump can just even the field, then he's happy. If he can just kind of. Take that man. 

TOM [00:10:28] Yes, just take it away by adding his own commercial, I think that's. 

ELLIS [00:10:32] An incumbent might have a little more freedom to do more softer kind of work. And so Trump might have that luxury. Now you go because, you know, and with a few facts, you think that he's a genius, but you don't need much. And if you're out there and you kind of have a feeling and everybody else is fighting for, you're doing the wrong thing. You're doing the wrong thing. 

STUART [00:10:53] Right. But Trump has changed the landscape, too. You can't have a message of hope against a Trump because it will not be perceived marketing wise as powerful enough to address the issue. 

ELLIS [00:11:08] And I also think probably if somebody attacks him, that's the end of it. He's going to attack back. So you take his nicer ads right off and go right after that person back at him. 

GREG [00:11:17] If you went after him, as he's actually not a winner, he's actually a loser. The only time I saw his numbers dipped in 2016 is when he lost one of the primaries. And suddenly people start looking at it differently. This guy's not really. And then, you know, he quickly recovered from that somehow. But I would position him as not the guy he really thinks he is. That's why I think Bloomberg ads did so well a couple weeks ago when he's like, you have no money. You know, he's one person. I can say I'’’ buy you out tonight if you want me to. You know? So if you expose him for what he is, I think. You think you could take him. 

ELLIS [00:11:51] The Republicans, I think, always have an advantage because they say less and they show a more emotional side. And so the Democrats are struggling with how to better position the logic. 

LINDA [00:12:01] And I think the Republicans are better. You know, I once saw an ad - maybe you did it. It was in the times they compared the signage and tome, of the Democrats versus the Republicans. That's interesting. And it was interesting because, you know, they say Democrats fall in love and Republicans fall in line. And, you know, they get the same words. When I worked with Clinton, it was with James Carville and he was the master at. “OK. But  here's the soundbite. And everybody's gonna use the soundbite.” And you don't see enough Democrats doing it. Republicans do whatever they say. It's a hoax. 

ELLIS [00:12:37] Well, one thing we've learned from today's discussion is that the Trump marketing phenomena is definitely not a hoax. Love it or hate it. It's proven surprisingly effective in driving his voters to the polls.

In the coming weeks, it will be fascinating to see how Trump, as one of today's guests, Jonathan Prince put it, flexes in his ads and what Bernie and Biden will have to do to combat each other and the marketing phenomenon that is Donald Trump. I want to thank everyone who helped kick off this series today. Hope you can join us for the next episode when we take a look at how the election has upended the traditional media landscape and what the candidates have been doing to package themselves to the American electorate. I'm Ellis Verdi. Thank you for listening.