Industry will rightly be rattled by Trump win

Adland might fear Brexit or a Trump presidency, but it should also be concerned about the failure to correctly gauge the mood of the public.

Last week once again left the "liberal elite" flabbergasted, pollsters embarrassed and political correctness under siege when the US elected a divisive, "post-truth" reality-TV star to be its president. Brexit, it turns out, is not an anomaly. 

The industry is now wondering what impact the election may have on its future. But what adland should be most concerned about is the sheer shock with which it received the news. A similar level of disbelief was felt in Cannes when people awoke to the news that the Brexiteers had won the referendum. 

Both are cautionary tales of the danger of becoming too divorced from your audience. It’s worrying if an industry that relies on understanding people failed to see the strongly held anti-establishment sentiment of a significant portion of the population. Indeed, in the run-up to the referendum, Campaign struggled to find a single adlander to argue for Brexit. 

In a broadcast world, where social media filter bubbles reinforce our own views, we are not very good at listening to each other. Marketers, particularly those working for mass-market brands, need to be proactive in finding alternative opinions.

Instead of worshipping at the altar of data, the industry should recognise this often has its own inherent bias, and that broad demographic categories have their limitations. Commentators surprised that Donald Trump won 29% of the Latino vote had overlooked that the group comprised disparate individuals including Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Cuban-Americans (who wanted to punish Hillary Clinton for supporting stronger ties with Cuba). 

Adland also needs to check its own privilege. Those who voted for Brexit – like Trump – have been routinely ridiculed for being racist/misogynistic/ ignorant bigots. Perhaps some are. But to tar 60 million people in the US and 17.4 million in the UK that way is lazy. Applying these labels means you don’t have to confront your own beliefs. The irony is that it is often the leading advocates for ethnic and gender diversity who are disparaging of the working class. 

It may be true that some who voted for Trump or Brexit don’t understand their choice may well make their living conditions harder. But for many, the desire to restore their social identity and to protest their experience of increasing unfairness in society was a more powerful prize. 

Brands also need to work out how their comms strategies will play out to more divided populaces. New Balance is feeling the heat from appearing to pick a side by tweeting a supportive Trump statement. Customers reacted by burning their shoes in protest. 

But the alternative – of releasing bland forgettable messages – may be worse. If Trump’s campaign taught us anything, it’s that people like to be entertained, even outraged. 

In our attention-deprived and information-overloaded society where tweets, slogans and speedy judgments do better than reasoned complex arguments, simple messages win the day. 

You may disagree with Trump’s views, but there are lessons for brands in his disruptive rise to power. 

Kate Magee is associate editor of Campaign. 

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