There’s so much to unpack in this New York Times story that I’m going to have to take it point by point. Quotes from the article are in italics, followed by my [skeptical eyes emoji] perspective.
Donald J. Trump’s victory came as a surprise to a number of advertisers, spurring soul-searching questions about how well they understood Americans who do not live in coastal cities and what the sharp political polarization in the country meant for the messages they create.
The story starts off with a statement that’s so outrageous as to be barely believable. If we accept it at face value, it means that advertisers were willfully and intentionally not doing their jobs, valuing work that could vie for Cannes Lions and other awards more than anything that was intended to effectively reach and motivate the public, which is a startling admission. Otherwise this sounds like cheap justification for pandering to a group of people whose hatred and vitriol has boiled over.
It’s especially concerning when you realize study after study has shown in the last year that Trump votes were the result not of economic anxiety but over concerns “other people” were taking over and white people just didn’t like it. Also notable is that this is almost exactly the same great awakening that reportedly happened at ABC and which lead to the revival of Roseanne, which just aired an episode about how she thought her new Muslim neighbors might be terrorists.
When marketers for HP met to review a new ad campaign a month after the election, they said they found themselves asking, “Do we think the situation we are portraying here is relevant to the Trump voter?”
The Trump voter represents a marked minority of the American public, so you’re actively stating here that you’re making decisions about national campaigns that will only be relevant to a small group of people. Not only that, but it’s a group that is going into decline as demographics shift both in terms of age groups and ethnicity. So you’re chasing a fading market and excluding everyone else.
Basically what’s being said here is that they don’t want to come under fire from right wing media and commentators. They’re afraid if they run an ad showing two black gay women, Fox & Friends will do 15 minutes on how you’re pushing a liberal agenda, which might result in a Tweet from the President of the United States that could then cause a substantial devaluation in your company stock.
The result is that marketers are now making concerted efforts to learn more about Americans who live outside New York and California.
Or, put differently, marketers have apparently been ignoring the entire rest of the country. If I’ve been paying an ad agency to work on any campaigns, I’m sueing them for breach of contract but they just admitted they haven’t at all considered the potential audience in 48 out of 50 states.
…the ad agency Y&R, using a division of the firm that had previously overseen cultural immersion projects in Myanmar and Ecuador, deployed strategists to immerse themselves in cities like Indianapolis and Milwaukee, Wis.
It’s so cool that a major advertising firm considers two major Midwestern cities to be on the same unknowable level as foreign markets. Again, the extent to which they’ve abdicated their responsibility in terms of basic domestic audience research is astounding and insulting.
One group “derived the benefit of the Obama years in economic terms, in terms of opportunity — they’re all about technology, open systems, open society, diversity. The other one is actually like: ‘We need a reset. We’ve lost our way.’” That second group, he said, is more “about family and community and faith and classical Americana imagery.”
Oof, there’s a lot going on there.
The first group, the one seen to benefit during the Obama administration, is looking forward to how society as a whole can be made better by more inclusiveness and participation. Open up the systems and make technological opportunities available to everyone and we all benefit.
The second group, the one that feels we’ve “lost our way,” wants to sweep all that aside in favor of a return to some mythical halcyon era where we all went to church and kids were free to play in the street at all hours. There’s nothing wrong with those ideas, but it needs to be noted that these glory days were also the ones where women were subjected to rampant, socially-accepted sexual harassment, Jim Crow laws restricted where and when black people could use public facilities and so on. “Classical Americana imagery” is very white and very male, so you need to acknowledge the sexism and racism that’s just under the surface of that statement.
The firm sent 14 strategists to four cities for two weeks each: Memphis, Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Phoenix.
Once more, treating major American cities like their the East Indies, reachable only via treacherous sea voyages where only three out of every five travelers won’t die of exposure or scurvy. I’m pretty sure all these cities are accessible via road, rail and air travel and have been for several years. This kind of perspective casts the people who live there as backwards yokels to be gaped at by the fancy big city professionals.
As marketers have become more aware of “an urban-suburban-rural geographic divide,” it has had an effect on some of the settings and people who appear in advertisements…. As a result of its research, HP will now design ads with consumers’ political leaning in mind — the same way it considers age, ethnicity and income when formulating its marketing plans, the company said in a report last month.
This is a cool way to justify making sure your ads are full of white heterosexual people and send a message that the brand will help them in their quest to cling to God and guns. Not only that, but I don’t think the aims of representing political leanings *and* age/ethnicity/income are compatible.
If you take as little as 10 minutes to scan Pew’s recent reports on political affiliation and identity you’ll see that the older, richer white people who are more conservative in their thinking hold very different opinions than the younger, multi-ethnic groups that are coming up behind them. The latter group is larger than the former and getting bigger every day and they want the brands they work for or do business with to show common cause on political issues, which this effort would appear to run counter to.
I’m a bit surprised this article hasn’t been torn apart more by others. It’s very much in line with other NYT op-eds that have presented racist millionaire media moguls as struggling disenfranchised martyrs, outcast for their political truth-telling and put forward the idea that sex is something men are entitled to as a basic right of their manhood.
It’s just kind of shocking to me that as we watch incidents of mass shootings rise (perpetrated by angry white men almost uniformly), white nationalists march openly and unashamedly and more *this* is the lesson media and advertising people are apparently anxious to learn. “We should embrace these out-of-the-closet racists” doesn’t seem like the big takeaway here, at least not to anyone with a modicum of common sense and decency.
There’s a decent chance the NYT, in an effort to find a story that fit the narrative it seems to have embraced as an editorial directive, did a bit of cherry-picking here and that the accounts in the story are not representative of the ad industry as a whole. It wouldn’t be unheard of.
Even if it’s a one-off, though, it’s troubling that this mindset is in place anywhere in 2018. The only logical explanation is the one I offered earlier, that this is less an effort to venture forth into the deepest darkest jungles of suburban Indiana to analyze the mysterious tribes who call it home and who spend all their time laughing about triggering the libs than it is one undertaken to not get on the president’s bad side. The implication that doing so would cause substantial brand damage should be of massive concern to everyone, everywhere.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.