Johnnie Walker debuted a beautiful, inclusive advertisement during the 2016 election night coverage. It featured a Hispanic-accented spoken word rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land was Made for You and Me,” delivered in part in Spanish. It was a moving evocation of cross-culturalism and a call to the better angels of our nature.
It was met by a howl of inchoate rage from just about half of the American electorate. That plurality recoiled from an America that embraces people of all races and ethnicities, national origins, gender and sexual identities, and faiths—an America that considers them not just equal under the law but of equal worth to our society. Nearly 60 million people, mostly white and working class, unambiguously rejected a vision for America that didn’t place them at the center. They called for ethnic purity and borders closed both to people and trade. In short, they want their country back the way it used to be: built on a system of widespread disenfranchisement and institutionalized discrimination designed to support the fortunes of one cherished group.
This cultural dislocation happened in conjunction with an economic one. I’ll leave aside the political cravenness that left the white working class so exposed, but no matter the cause, the situation is clear. The good manufacturing jobs are gone. Yes, the US has structural advantages in energy cost and availability, proximity to the market, and technological expertise. However, the emerging jobs that come from that trifecta take training and education many in the aggrieved electorate do not possess. Too little was done to cushion the fall of the old order and prepare for the transition to the new.
A reversion to protectionism and nativism will not change those economic facts. In fact, it may make them worse. Growth in trade dependent jobs outpaces non-trade-dependent ones. Wages are higher there, too. When those realities hit home and people recognize that they still can’t get hired, when they realize that they’ve fallen once again for the long con, the cultural resentment will grow deeper. We have in Donald Trump a man who has shown an aptitude for demagoguery, and only Pollyannas think he won’t continue to build on that. Make no mistake: American institutions may be strong, but this is how republics die.
That would be bad for business, and businesses need to respond, both for their own sakes and for the sake of us all. That response must begin with marketing.
Advertisers and marketers respond to consumers. We spend uncounted hours and dollars divining the unspoken desires, motivators, and behaviors of the people we want to persuade. It is tempting, therefore, to read the results of this election as a referendum on a pluralistic view of society. We could see this as a huge data point that argues against cross-cultural marketing and for an outdated vision of a mostly white general market surrounded by a satellite of ethnic market segments. That’s the wrong message to take out. Plural society is here to stay, but at the same time we must acknowledge that there is a yawning empathy gap.
David Ogilvy wrote that, “Advertising reflects the mores of society, but doesn’t influence them.” History has proven him wrong. Coca-Cola’s famous “Boys on a Bench” ad placed black and white young people together, even touching, and enjoying a Coke. You’ve seen the ad. Now look closer. It’s 1969, and these boys are sitting, integrated, on a segregation bench. That image helped normalize something that was once forbidden. Twenty-two years later, Benetton turned the excruciating image of David Kirby dying of AIDS into an advertisement, “Pieta,” and in so doing, rubbed the brutal reality of AIDS epidemic into the face of a public eager to ignore it. And don’t forget that “We Can Do It” was a motivational advertising poster for Westinghouse long before it was an iconic image for gender equality.
Our work does influence the mores of society, and it is our duty to our brands and our clients to do so the right way. Climate change is real. Pandering to those who would wish it away is unsustainable, not just for the environment but for business itself. Our society is becoming more—not less—diverse. Reversing course on inclusive advertising will alienate the majority-in-the-making. We could lose the trust of a whole generation. Hyperbolic? No, not if you look at the overwhelming Democratic majority among 18-25-year-old voters. We have to ignore the hatred, misogyny, bigotry, and intolerance for which so many consumers have shown a preference.
Using our influence right also means that we must listen to the huge segment of our society walled off from the costal elites. Last night, these voters made clear that they feel ignored, disenfranchised, and left behind. The benefits of globalization haven’t just passed them by, they’ve been earned on their backs. The technologically-enabled service economy on which we thrive probably seems as foreign and avaricious as the Capital did in The Hunger Games. Just as we reject the hate that handmaidens white working class despair, we must attend to the pain that led them to that place. Trump won because he empathized with an angry, stumbling demographic and made them feel heard. We must treat these consumers with respect and deliver to them attentive, empathetic marketing service.
We will have to fight to achieve a balance between ministering to the pain of working class whites and driving our larger culture forward. There will be those in our own companies and agencies who will urge what seems to be a safer course. We will hear from those who think inclusiveness isn’t a winning message, who think that we ought to bury diversity and placate the aggrieved folks in our culture.
We must do the exact opposite.
In business, our view is the long one.
We work for quarterly results and plan for long-term performance. We must do the same with our marketing. Trumpism has brought to light our failure to listen. We must fix that, but businesses who wish to remain strong must take care of what they hear. Remember the words which abolitionist minister Theodore Parker wrote in 1853: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”