The easy option for marketers is to avoid politics. Brands never want to get too involved in the political sphere, because you can be certain that if you please one group of customers, you’ll alienate another. Best to keep schtum.
Donald J Trump, I would argue, is different.
He’s an earthquake that just can’t be ignored.
Notice how Kellogg’s had a run-in with the President’s mates at Breitbart not so long ago? The cereal brand pulled its advertising from the alt-right site and, according to news reports, Breitbart responded by ‘declaring war’ on Kellogg’s.
Well, that little spat was just a precursor of much more trouble to come, I suspect.
There may well be further battles between brands and media outlets that are seen to champion objectionable opinions. But there’s actually a much bigger issue for marketers now that Trump has reached the Oval Office. And it was highlighted within days of his being sworn in.
It’s a question of trust.
And trust is a commodity that’s very highly valued by brands.
If we’re honest, politicians, journalists and marketers are not very well trusted generally, are they? In the eyes of the wider population, these professions have historically competed for credibility with real estate agents and the guys who used to go door-to-door selling encyclopaedias. (Boy, did the bottom drop out of that market.)
I’m reminded of the autobiography of legendary French ad man Jacques Séguéla (the S in Euro RSCG, the firm subsequently subsumed in to the Havas empire.) He entitled it: Ne dites pas à ma mère que je suis dans la publicité, elle me croit pianiste dans un bordel.
No jokes about having a tinkle with prostitutes, please.
My point is that advertisers, marketers and brand communicators already struggle to build trust among consumers. So anything that makes that process harder still is something that should concern us greatly.
Which brings us to the events of the past few days.
Trump and his press spokesman Sean Spicer told the world that the Donald’s inauguration was the best attended ever. Even though it wasn’t. The facts showed that it compared poorly to Obama’s 2009 ceremony, as any person with a pilot light in their boiler would have suspected anyway. Kellyanne Conway from Team Trump told us that they had ‘alternative facts’.
In Trump’s world, black is white and white is black.
The newly-elected Commander in Chief went to the CIA in Langley, Virginia (having recently accused the intelligence community of behaving like Nazi Germany) and apparently received a thunderous five-minute standing ovation.
His speech was criticised by former CIA agents and officials as being completely inappropriate, as it focused on himself and failed to acknowledge the service of the operatives killed in action and commemorated in a memorial behind him. But we’re told the current employees just loved him and laughed their way through the whole event.
This is the first couple of days of President Trump. And the currency of trust is being devalued by the hour.
Of course, it’s not just an American thing. There was the notorious Brexit bus which promised huge sums of money to the UK’s National Health Service, which seemed to be disowned almost immediately the referendum result was announced. But Trump is certainly in a league of his own. A big league. Or should that be a bigly?
All this matters to the marketing community because there is a serious knock-on effect.
We’re in the middle of an important debate over the influence of fake news.
The accusation is that deliberately manufactured stories – written perhaps by political cranks and bored teenagers in Macedonia looking for a few bucks – have influenced the way we think about the world. Maybe we believe them to be real and share them with friends. Or we find these tall tales perhaps start to influence the general culture and dialogue that’s going on in society. And even if we don’t believe them, they waft like a poisonous miasma on the streets of Gotham and influence the prevailing mood.
If some of the news out there is fake, we all feel we need to be on our guard. Rightly so.
But what if we’re told the real news from respectable outlets is the fake news?
Our heads are spinning.
CNN was real, but now it’s fake. A story it publishes is now in the same category as the Macedonian kid who says Barack Obama was born on the moon*.
Think about the marketing world of 2017.
Native advertising. Sponsored content. An explosion in what used to be quaintly called ‘advertorial’ back in the day.
Journalists complain that the growth of this content affects the credibility of their profession. As marketers, we disguise our messages as editorial and it’s hard for people to tell the real from the sponsored.
Well-written content of this kind is – as its name implies – truly ‘native’. It blends with the environment.
But I predict a problem.
If people are told to distrust regular news sources, the credibility of all editorial content goes down. If too many people start to believe the argument that the ‘mainstream media’ is bogus, the attractiveness of placing content in the environment starts to diminish.
Even if a majority of readers still accept that their favourite online newspaper or magazine does mainly publish the truth, their suspicions start to grow about other institutions.
They see politicians prepared to tell them that invisible people attended an inauguration. So maybe they trust the next set of unemployment figures rather less. And when a brand comes along with an advertisement, maybe its statistics, testimonials and product benefits carry less weight than ever before.
The message people are being asked to believe comes straight out of the cult 90s sci-fi series The X-Files. Trust no one.
And it’s a dictum that is utterly toxic in the longer term to brand communications.
*Barack Obama was born in Hawaii and has the birth certificate to prove it.