The Power of simplistic

In the aftermath of the dispiriting midden that was the second presidential debate, I suspect that the readers of The Drum are not looking here for further analysis. Plenty of that elsewhere.

Thankfully then, I’d like to look above the tumultuous freak show that is Trump’s campaign and see what we can learn from it from a marketing perspective.

Because, against all rational thought and civilized discourse, he’s not only there, but still there. Why?

From a communications standpoint I think there are two reasons. One big and one small.

The small one (nothing to do with hands) is one of proliferation. The torrent of falsehoods, unsavory episodes and strangled language means it’s almost impossible to pin anything on the guy.

Poor Hillary. An adult, her responses are like nailing jello to a wall. Only in this case, you can’t even see the wall.

He, by contrast, just has emails. And Benghazi. And the monotonous repetition of "crooked". Which leads me to the big reason. And the interesting one for us, which is that he has a clearly articulated vision summed up neatly in a few words. Leave aside whether you think it’s a vision or a hallucination, but he has a vision that everyone can quote, and it is drilled into our sub-conscious.

Notably though, he avoids ever saying how he will deliver on this vision – and just tells us to “trust” him. And millions do. Interestingly in this respect, his campaign has more in common with Obama's in ‘08 (with its vision of Hope) than the current Democratic campaign.

The power and unlikely resilience of Trump’s campaign offers us a spectacle in the power of the simplistic, and marketers have understood this for generations.

Generally, people are too busy, or too preoccupied with their own lives. They don’t want to engage with complex detail. And this is why simplistic presentation works, and has worked so well, for so long.

If someone comes along and promises an easy end to a perceived pain, then we’ll fall for it. Especially if that is repeated concisely and metronomically. And even more so if it’s in direct opposition to a status quo which we want to see as the cause of that (real or imagined) pain.

In Trump’s case, what’s happening is a false memory is being created (when was America “Great” exactly? Is it really no longer “Great”?), and to implant a false memory, “you try to get someone to confuse their imagination with their memory. Get them to repeatedly picture it happening”.

I’d say this was the case with the successful Leave campaign in the UK that won it for 'Brexit' too. The parallels with Trump’s campaign are striking.

The other aspect of Trump’s campaign that sees him march on in the face of sustained machine-gunning from the opposition (and most of the commentariat), is the outrageousness of his pronouncements.

This has real cut-through: the believers have their beliefs continually validated in the most strident terms, and the non-believers stare on in fascinated horror.

To sum up, I think there are a few basic truths here that are forgotten too often by many marketers.

The first is that to motivate people, you have to have a vision. A far-fetched one. One that is bordering on the delusional, perhaps. As Will Smith insightfully said, “Being realistic is the most common path to mediocrity," so brands need marketers to have visions that are on the verge of unrealistic if they have any chance of standing for something notable. Too often in today’s marketing departments, realism rules the day. I’d argue that a big part of the marketing team’s job is to push further than is strictly credible, and then wait to be pulled back by others.

For example, does Coke make people happy? Not by any rational measure, but that hasn’t stopped the brand claiming it very successfully for many years. Does Special K make you thinner than other cereals? Of course it doesn’t, but it’s carved out an incredibly strong brand positioning and identity just based on this barely defensible claim. It’s just, asserted simply and often enough, we come to believe it. Something psychologists call “the illusion of truth."

Both Happiness and Thinness are in their own way simplistic ideas. But, it doesn’t matter, that’s what makes them so effective. Keep saying it, and it will penetrate the subconscious. For this is the seat of action. And it’s where you want your simplistic message to reside. As psychologists say, “familiarity breeds liking, familiarity breeds familiarity, and familiarity breeds validity."

I feel that too many marketers today fail to develop a bold enough vision, the courage to strike a pose against a status quo and lack the conviction to stick to one clear, and yes, simplistic message.

As Trump’s yugely unbelievable campaign, and Obama’s more hopeful one before him proved, being simplistic can take you a long way in marketing.

This piece was originally published on The Drum, 11 October 2016.