Donald Trump has a gift for making enemies. Indeed, Trump is more distinctly defined by his negative than positive agenda. And yet, despite the fury of his conflicts, the media and advertising industries ignore his popular appeal at their peril.
If it were not so grim, Trump’s deepening war on the media would be highly ironic. Many American journalists pride themselves on their objectivity and seem astonished at Trump’s disdain for them, but the new president has always had a tempestuous relationship with the press. In 2015, he wrote in Crippled America:
“There are many reporters whom I have a lot of respect for… but there are also a lot of times I believe that the media is abusive… They don’t care about printing the truth… they know what I meant, and they edit it or interpret it to have a different meaning.”
He has also explicitly sided with “real Americans” against “ridiculous” journalists (making it clear that, in his eyes, journalists are not real Americans).
As with so many things about Trump, the truth is quite plain. The president can afford to ignore the adage “never pick a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel and paper by the ton.” After all, media opposition did not stop his electoral victory, and they count for naught in Trump country.
During the US presidential campaign, Trump outperformed Hillary Clinton on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube). His superior audience sizes, posting frequency and amount of fan engagements (e.g. “likes”, “loves” and shares of his social media content) clashed with the media and polling narrative of his impending defeat. As I wrote in Campaign toward the end of the race:
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“Trump clocked up 16.3 million likes and loves on his content in the last week, compared to just 13.1 million for Clinton. Shares of his content, meanwhile, stood at 2.8 million, well ahead of Clinton’s 2.1 million.”
#MakeAmericaGreatAgain and #MAGA were his most used hashtags, but he also attacked Clinton with posts about #CrookedHillary and #DrainTheSwamp.
Social media give Trump direct access to his supporters, bypassing the traditional media, who seem blithely unaware that they are either ignored or held in contempt in conversations on social media.
Trump also prioritised social media marketing during his campaign, to the extent that his “unprecedented lack of TV spend [impacted] TV political revenues, with the medium seeing its 58% market share dip to 45% since the last election.”
Trump’s social media obsession means ordinary people can (or at least, feel like they can) directly interact with him. For example, his apology Facebook video about the lewd comments he made about women to Billy Bush gained 441 thousand likes – the single biggest reaction.
The inauguration speech may have been self-aggrandising rather than gracious, but Trump’s social media polemics and support continue unabated. His Instagram post of 26 February (“I will not be attending the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner this year. Please wish everyone well and have a great evening!”) gained 100 thousand likes in just one day. Moreover, most user commentary was supportive: “Total RESPECT for you”, “So proud of you”, “I don’t blame you one bit President Trump (I love saying that!)”. And his Facebook post of 27 February (“Russia talk is FAKE NEWS put out by the Dems, and played up by the media”) drove 43.9 thousand likes, 11.8 thousand comments and 2.4 thousand shares (the latter typically equating to user advocacy) in just one hour.
In short, Trump uses social media in astonishingly effective ways, and none of the scandals or scrutiny that have dogged his fledgling presidency have done anything to damage his support.
I believe this has critical implications for business, the media and advertising.
First, although there are many laudable Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes and calls for greater gender and race diversity, corporate concern to understand Trump voters seems thin on the ground. Perhaps social conservatism is the new big trend, as VCCP’s Charles Vallance has noted:
“It’s pervasive… deeply influential and… decidedly untrendy. In fact, it’s more than that. It’s deliberately, defiantly untrendy. It doesn’t do what it’s told and it won’t stand corrected by people who know better.”
Telling Trump voters about international development or the amount of board level women might well be equivalent to whistling in the wind.
Second, the media and advertising industries may lose cut-through. They often research millennials ad infinitum, as though only they matter (although this may be because it is easier to get millennials to fill in online surveys). Honest questions need to be asked about the value of youth and middle-class aspiration. Repeating stories and messages to disengaged audiences – as all industries have been doing – is strategically unsound.
Trump has energised the power of the “forgotten” class – forgotten not only by politicians, but often by business too. Whatever you think about him, we should all be dismayed by the facile dismissal of his voters, who can no longer be ignored. A more considered approach to Trump country, enraged at being talked over, is well overdue.
Andre van Loon is Research & Insight Director at We Are Social in London. All opinions are his own.