Blindsided by Election Outcome, Advertisers Grapple with New “Postfactual Democracy”’

Thursday, November 17, 2016
(graphic: Getty Images)


By Sapna Maheshwari, New York Times


The presidential race was not far from the minds of executives from America’s biggest brands and advertising agencies last month in Orlando, Florida, at the annual conference held by the Association of National Advertisers. The industry leaders had traveled from cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco, and any political conversation seemed to be premised on the assumption that Hillary Clinton would win.


There was some talk about how to best market to Donald Trump’s supporters after Nov. 8 and debate about what a potential Trump media organization might look like. Many were aghast that the race was close at all, criticizing aspects of Clinton’s branding and messaging for holding her back in what they thought should have been a no-brainer for voters.


So when Trump won the election last week, an industry that prides itself on always knowing what motivates and excites the American public was in a state of shock. Marketers now find themselves asking serious questions about how they study consumers, use data and quantify the value of facts — questions about the fundamental nature of their business.


Advertisers, like many others, “may have found ourselves in bubbles of our own making,” said Rishad Tobaccowala, chief strategist for the Publicis Groupe.


Sarah Hofstetter, chief executive of the digital agency 360i, said the disconnect between Trump’s win and the predictions from polls and forecasters threw into question “the rules of market research,” traditionally rooted in surveys, interviews and discussions with focus groups in controlled settings.


That information should now be supplemented with “social listening” on Twitter, Reddit and other parts of the internet, and behavioral data including what people are searching for online, Hofstetter said.


“It’s a wake-up call,” she said. “One data set is not going to give you the full picture, because with people, what people say is not always what they think or what they do, whether intentional or not.”


At the same time, advertisers are prepared for a new period of second-guessing any customer data, whether it has been gathered internally or supplied by the brands they work with. Some of that is rooted in recognizing the one-sided nature of the world they experienced on Facebook and Twitter during the election.


“In a world of social and filtered media, we are not getting enough signals that we might be wrong,” Tobaccowala said. “All marketers must actually look for evidence and actually search out why they may not be right.”


Rob Schwartz, chief executive of TBWA\Chiat\Day New York, said: “There’s going to be scrutiny on data and a big demand from clients saying, ‘Yes, there’s data, and what do we really know? Who’s been to Kansas to understand what they’re consuming in Kansas, and is it the same in Nebraska? And don’t just Google it.'”


Some marketers have been left wondering if facts and reason matter less than they expected — a counterintuitive discovery in the age of information.


Wendy Clark, chief executive of DDB North America and a former Coca-Cola marketing executive, said the election showed “facts are somewhat negotiable.” Clark spent time working with Clinton’s campaign last year, a rumor confirmed last month when an email she wrote about the importance of Clinton’s logo was disclosed by WikiLeaks.


“Facts are sort of, ‘I might take them or I might not,'” she said. “They’re certainly discretionary now, so there is that notion as a marketer and advertiser of understanding we live in a postfactual democracy.”


Tobaccowala remarked that “emotion brings people out, reason probably doesn’t.”


“You had a candidate who was more experienced and probably had a résumé better than anyone to be president of the United States defeated by a candidate with a résumé who is least likely to be president of the United States,” he said. “One spoke to reason and the other spoke to emotion.”


Schwartz said he saw that reflected in how Trump was able to fashion himself as the protagonist of a David and Goliath story, appealing to those looking for an “outsider” to “fix the system,” he said. It was akin to what Bernie Sanders offered voters, he said.


“The story of ‘I’m taking on big government’ was more compelling at this point in history than the story of, ‘I’m going to keep this thing going and make it incrementally better’ and the story of experience,” he said. “Sometimes the story of experience can be really soothing for people and really be the thing that captures people’s imaginations. The Bernie narrative and the Trump narrative is the same.”


Some see a broader lesson in the rejection of experience by the electorate. Richard Edelman, chief executive of the public relations company Edelman, said Trump’s use of Twitter — which he often used to forcefully attack Clinton and the news media — and reduced reliance on traditional TV ads showed the power of “peer-to-peer” communication.


“The more effective messaging might be from the mass population as opposed to using celebrities and using media and academics,” he said.


Clark said on Thursday that she was eager for people to “lean back into being Americans,” especially after “the level of dialogue that took place,” a reference to the often ugly nature of the campaign. She anticipates more ads highlighting values like the importance of diversity as the nation works to find common ground.


“Brands can shape culture, so I think in that sense brands have a responsibility to represent their values and talk about them,” Clark said. “And if you’re an inclusive brand — there’s nothing more democratic to me than inclusion.”


To Learn More:

As Top Google Story Falsely Claims Trump Won Popular Vote, Facebook and Google Take Aim at Fake News Sites (by Nick Wingfield, Mike Isaac and Katie Benner, New York Times)

Facebook at Center of Debate over Influence of Fake News on Election (by Barbara Ortutay, Associated Press)

U.S. Presidential Election Further Exposes Great Divide between Online and Mainstream Media (by John Herrman, New York Times)

Rise in Social Media’s Power Reveals Growing Threat to Democracy: Fake News (by Jim Rutenberg, New York Times)

Truth Viewed as Victim, Not Beneficiary, of the Internet (by Farhad Manjoo, New York Times)


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