Conformity of opinion will lead to a retreat from creative experimentation

Filter bubble: Donald Trump has succeeded by catering to a subset of voters' existing prejudices
Filter bubble: Donald Trump has succeeded by catering to a subset of voters' existing prejudices

It is more important than ever to look outside the marketing bubble and engage head-on with different types of people, writes Will Harris.

I have nothing in common with someone who wants Donald Trump in charge, apart from wanting them to love my brands.

Like many people, I’ve been struggling to understand what’s been going on of late.

People who make perfectly rational choices about where they shop and what they buy seem to be choosing their leaders in a very unpredictable manner.

Consider the present front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in the US. If anyone reading this magazine turned up for a job interview, only to be confronted by a guy who behaved like ‘The Donald’, they’d run a mile.

Here is a man who, on primetime TV, went out of his way to boast about the size of his hands and his manhood. Try doing a ‘town hall’ meeting at work today, and repeat, verbatim, what he said on the stump. You’d be whisked off to HR on a charge before you knew it.

How can those worlds diverge so much? How can a platform that seems so grotesque to readers of this magazine be so appealing to vast swathes of the US electorate?

After many long-haul flights, and much head-scratching, I’ve reached two conclusions. First, that the internet is to blame, and second, that it’s worrying for marketers.

A cocooned existance

One of the unintended consequences of the internet seems to be that, lurking beneath its more celebrated characteristics of global knowledge-dissemination, is a less-noticed fact. We have started to coagulate into groups where we feel comfortable, and avoid those where we don’t.

If you’re a Guardian-reading, sandal-eating vegan, you hang out online with your own. You’ll get your news from certain types of sites, your Facebook circle will probably not feature the views of people with radically different views from yours, and you are unlikely to spend your working week as head of operations at an abattoir.

Whereas once we lived in a real-world community, aware of the conventional wisdom of that society, and in some cases proudly at odds with it, now you can surround yourself completely with people and ideas that appeal to you, in every form of media. You can avoid mixing with people of divergent views to a greater degree than ever before. In the digital age, every outlet we turn to can provide affirmation for our views, however extreme to the mass.

Strength in numbers

You won’t find any mainstream news outlet espousing Trumpism, but then the people who support him are probably not Economist readers

That conformity isn’t always good. I’m not making a political point here; the same is true of any of us who find ourselves falling into a rut of digital convention. Even the mighty hand of Google reaffirms this, with a steady stream of familiar ads, reiterating your interests and beliefs whenever you hit your browser. Google serves you the ads you want to see, and not the ones you should see.

So those people who really believe that building a wall to keep Mexicans out of the US and any sort of ban on Muslims entering the country is a good thing will no doubt have been surrounded by people saying exactly those type of things for years. If that’s what everyone around you believes, then by definition, it becomes the norm for you. We irrational non-wall-builders are the aberration, not them.

As a result, in election year in the US, we have two groups who are mixing like oil and water; that is to say, not at all. You won’t find any mainstream news outlet espousing Trumpism, but then the people who support him are probably not Economist readers. In their media, he is just giving voice to what they know to be true.

For politics, read marketing. For voters, read consumer. Advertising and marketing are pretty middle-class professions. Take Corbynism; the man got more than a quarter of a million votes to become Labour leader. That’s a big brand share by any standard, and yet you wonder how many of those people, and millions more who think he is a hero, are served by most of the material produced by our mainstream marketing industry.

We tend to make campaigns we would like and our peers will view in high regard. Is it any wonder that middle-class brands like John Lewis, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s are so highly regarded by people like us?

Across the divide

It wasn’t always so. Many of us grew up with the great lager and beer commercials of the 1990s that reached across every social and economic divide. We loved the Ray Gardner Tango ads because they were so wrong, and broke the category rules as defined by Coke. I’m not sure I can call out their modern-day equivalents. In our retreat from creative experimentation, and headlong rush for short, snackable content that will get shared, we run the risk that we are, in effect, talking only to ourselves.

I recently stumbled across Russia Today, the official overseas TV station for the Russian State. It’s very clever, beguiling, and skilfully put together. Only after about 10 minutes can you see the joins. But once you do, it is, frankly, terrifying.

Regular viewers can watch earnest academics from this country and others debate the merits of President Putin, egged on by supine presenters. See for yourself. Learn about President Putin’s 80% approval ratings in Russia, but hear how, as a leader, he is more akin to JFK or Ronald Regan than we think. There is a shadow reality created there, and it’s not something any of us should be comfortable with.

There again, perhaps that’s the problem. Rather than turning our back on people, opinions and brands that differ from our normal repertoire, we should run toward them, and engage head-on. We need to make sure we’re not talking to ourselves. I have nothing in common with someone who wants Jeremy Corbyn or Donald Trump in charge, apart from the fact that I want them to love my brands. And that’s reason enough to take them seriously.

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