Webinars
The Behavioral Science Behind Trump's Win

What separates a political campaign from an ad campaign? There isn’t much—politicians are brands, and their speeches, slogans, merchandise, debate performances and television appearances are all geared towards getting their message across. Just as a brand would love everyone on the planet to buy their product, a politician would love to get all the votes. But since that’s impossible, it becomes about trying to find the right audience and the perfect message for that audience.

Politicians and brands have been trying to figure out how to do this forever, but with the recent election of Donald Trump, many norms have been flipped on their ear, leaving many wondering how he did it. The lesson for brands might lie in parenting techniques. But we’ll get there.

Chris Graves, Chairman of Ogilvy Public Relations, recently hosted a Social On Us webinar where he offered some compelling theories to explain how Trump convinced (3 million fewer, but still) people to vote for him over his challenger Hillary Clinton. Graves argued that Trump tapped into a number of powerful emotions using methods that brands and marketers would do well to follow if they want to sell more products. It starts and ends with understanding people’s behaviors and mindsets.

Before the how, the what.

Trump touched on a trio of important emotions or themes that resonated (bigly, one might say). The first being concreteness. Trump made waves early in the campaign by making bold, simple statements. The solutions for immigration, a very complicated subject, were “the wall” and deportations. These are easy things to repeat, and they’re easy to visualize. Graves pointed out that the more easily we can picture something, the more believable it is. A candidate can come up with the perfect legislation to solve a problem, but people will believe the wall guy more, because they know what walls look like. They see them every day. They can touch them! Go up to a wall and try to get through it; it’s hard. Problem solved. Terrorism is also an incredibly complex issue. A mix of socio-economic factors, climate, politics and religion, over many many years, contribute to just some of the reasons people carry out terror attacks. To stop it? A temporary banning of Muslims entering the US. A set of government policies across a number of agencies carrying out tactics in far off lands is difficult to picture. A hardline stance that creates a virtual wall that results in a world devoid of Muslims isn’t.

Then there’s good old fashioned nostalgia. People love the movie La La Land. It’s doing well at the box office and is about to be nominated for approximately 72 Oscars. It’s beautiful and fun and features sexy people singing and dancing, but doesn’t its success at least have something to do with harkening back to a past age of cinema? People like the past.

The final word of Trump’s now-famous slogan and hat logo, “Make America Great Again”, is the most important word. Again.

What you did before, do it now. This type of message, Graves said, works because most people romanticize the past. If you’re on a trip to Italy, in the moment, you’re in the throes of travel: currency and language difference, crowds, unfamiliarity. When you look back on the trip years later, you think only about how beautiful the Coliseum was. And this works when you’re looking forward too, Graves noted. By priming people to look to the past, as Trump did, you can more easily convince them that the future is going to be even better. Word has it that Trump will use “Keep America Great” in his 2020 re-election campaign, but I wonder if “Make America Great Again Again” might be more effective.

In marketing, we always hear that brands need to know their audience. Trump knew his audience. Graves pointed us to a study done by Yoel Inbar and David Pizzarro of Cornell University and Paul Bloom of Yale University, where they concluded that people who self-disclose as conservatives are more easily disgusted than those who consider themselves liberals. Rarely will you hear Trump go half way when talking about his disdain for someone or something. Everything is failing, everyone is a loser, results are “Sad!”. Of course, Trump consistently used the word “disgusting” itself, though this was often aimed toward such dangerous individuals as Rosie O’Donnell or former beauty pageant contestants.

Concreteness, the power of nostalgia, and disgust were factors, but what were some of the behavioral characteristics of Trump supporters that help explain his victory? Graves believes one possibility is the concept of Cultivation Theory, first coined by George Gerbner to explain the effect of television viewing on the public. Gerbner wanted to find out if children who grew up watching television with more and more violence on it would be more violent themselves. In fact, what he found is that the more violence one was exposed to on television, the more they were fearful of being victims of violence rather than being actual perpetrators of it.

Seeing and hearing certain images incessantly in our media warps our view of the world relative to its reality. Trump likely knew this. Hence, he harped on creating images in his speeches of people getting shot in the streets of the inner cities, dangerous criminals or covert terrorists pretending to be refugees pouring over our borders. More stark imagery, repeated, warping perceptions, piling up votes.

But as marketers know, not everyone thinks the same way. If these tactics simply worked on everyone, Trump would have won the popular vote. But it did work on certain people. Who, though? There have been countless analyses written trying to find what trait Trump supporters shared—race, income, education level, etc. There are some correlations there, however, as Politico and Vox have explored, Trump supporters were largely authoritarian. Stanley Feldman’s 4-question Parenting Survey was one way to determine someone’s authoritarian tendency, which correlated very strongly with support for Trump. The 4 questions were: Is it more important for a child:

  • To have independence or respect for elders?
  • To have obedience or self-reliance?
  • To be considerate or well-behaved?
  • To have curiosity or good manners?

The answers that largely could predict an authoritarian tendency, and thus support for Trump were, together: respect for elders, obedience, well-behaved, and good manners.

Neither side of the left-right spectrum holds a monopoly on those with authoritarian tendencies. This could explain the many voters who switched from voting for Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. As Graves noted during the webinar, those with authoritarian tendencies aren’t bad people, they just harbor a certain worldview. Trump’s triumph may have been due to his ability to tap into those with that worldview, and his will to connect with them.

So if you want to make your brand great again in this fracturing media landscape, don’t concentrate so much on segments of people based on class, race, income or location. You can better find matches for your message, and craft messages that resonate, by studying how people think and playing to their worldview.




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