November 16, 2016
Advertising in a Post-Factual Democracy
by Ryan Harrington
“Some marketers have been left wondering if facts and reason matter less than they expected.”
The sentence is a bit shocking. It seems to signal a sea change in an advertising industry obsessed with mastering data collection and interpretation. So big a change that you might it expect it to be in reaction to an equally seismic shift in the nature of consumer culture itself.
In reality, this sentiment represents the re-calibration that many marketers are considering in wake of the recent upset that elected Donald Trump, according to Sapna Maheshwari, who wrote the sentence in a piece this week for the New York Times. And the effect of that reaction is twofold: it changes what types of research advertisers might privilege, and it could change the nature and tone of resulting campaigns.
According to Maheshwari, from a research standpoint “advertisers are prepared for a new period of second-guessing any customer data, whether it has been gathered internally or supplied by the brands they work with. Some of that is rooted in recognizing the one-sided nature of the world they experienced on Facebook and Twitter during the election.” In general, the thinking is that the information the industry currently relies on may have filtered out critical opposing voices — much like pre-election polls and general media sentiment did.
Then there are lessons to be learned about what kind of campaign is most effective. In our current moment, should the advertising industry lean more toward emotion-based campaigns than reason-based ones? Trump’s winning campaign, after all, was fueled by the weapons-grade emotions elicited by racism, xenophobia, and misogyny, as well as a healthy dose of “Make America Great Again” sentimentality. He set out to tell the story of a self-made man versus big government — a story that appealed greatly to voters’ hopes, and fears. Hillary Clinton’s losing campaign, on the other hand, focused on sober experience and reason. We may, as a result, see advertisements favor emotion over statistics and mass messaging over celebrity or academic endorsements.
How exactly this translated to an un-self-made celebrity winning the presidency is a question for another day. But it is a testament to the raw power of storytelling.
Enter Nato Thompson’s forthcoming book Culture As Weapon (drops January 2017, but stay ahead of inauguration and pre-order yours today). It is as fine a document as you can read on the weaponization of affect in the service of power, from Reagan’s nostalgic “Morning in America” campaign (awfully familiar today), to David Petraeus’s hearts-and-minds strategy in the Middle East, to the seductive aesthetic that has made companies like Apple and Ikea some of the biggest in the world. Thompson, Artistic Director at the fantastic organization Creative Time, asks us: if power so easily co-opts the emotion-generating tools of artists, shouldn’t we be suspicious of art’s place in our world?
Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.