On Friday, October 23, after the final presidential debate, President Donald Trump held a rally in Florida that featured something rare even for a Trump event. At the rally, there were large screens showing video clips that he would reference like colossal visual aides during his speech. Don’t take my word for it, he seemed to be saying, here, listen to Biden say it himself.
This was the culmination of a four year arc of a trend Trump has largely blazed himself, shifting away from the traditional politician’s carefully polished and scripted stump speech and towards an unscripted, unfiltered, raw delivery. Trump has ridden this trend for four years, the same trend towards raw communication that has taken root in business, culture, media, and clearly politics. With the trends behind him, what could stop him?
Well, potentially a second trend.
Mid-way through the first Trump term, we saw a series of smaller, but no less important, trends emerge that when viewed together, became quite relevant in this conversation. Let’s start with “peak outrage.” Support for brands that supported controversial social or political issues collapsed in 2018, dropping from support in the mid- 50% range in 2017 to the mid-20% range in 2018 and beyond. Yes, the political edges of “very conservatives” and “very liberals” were relatively stable in their brand militancy and brand advocacy, but driving this larger trend was a looming chasm in the middle of the American political landscape, the self-described independent and moderates. They were tuning out.
Second, we saw consumer sentiment shift away from the desire towards immediate, first-person validation from brands and candidates appearing on camera and floating ideas, often only semi-formed but still very much in the heat of the moment. Instead, we saw consumers express the desire to get the true story — even if it took some time to get there. When we asked if respondents preferred to see a leader on camera in the midst of a crisis even if they didn’t have all the information at hand, just under 70% agreed in 2017. By 2018, support for this seat of the pants style had dropped to the high 40% range and then the low 40% range by 2018. We’re willing to wait for the truth. We’re all a bit tired of the harried executive or candidate barely in control while fires burn in the background.
A general tuning out to the outrage and the desire to slow down the instantaneous assault of disintermediated video both point to a pumping of the breaks on the American psyche. We struggled with a proper name for this mini-phenomenon… could it be “Trump fatigue?”
As background, my partner at Denny Leinberger Strategy, Paul Leinberger, and I began studying the impact of technology on culture in 2016. Our first culture and technology intersection study was a wide ranging global quantitative effort aimed at understanding the future of the brain consumer relationship, the digital footprint, and what we saw as the future of work. A number of Trends emerge from that initial work, and continue to this day — indeed, many are carefully laid out in our new book, Unfiltered Marketing: 5 Rules to Win Back Trust, Credibility, and Customers in a Digitally Distracted World (Career Press). But three main trends dominate the research.
The first we called, “Seeking Control in an Out-of-Control World.” We’re living in an age of collapsing trust in the institutions surrounding us we clearly don’t trust the technology companies in his hands we’ve put our personal and private information as we feel they are often using this information in ways that are decidedly against our best interests. But we’re not content to accept our defeat. We’re looking for ways to wrest some sense of control back over our lives.
The second major trend we called, “Raw.” in an age of collapsing trust, where we don’t trust the institutions around us, the only true news source we’ve come to trust is ourselves — our own eyes, ears, and judgment. We want to see it ourselves. We want the raw feed. We want to see the hidden emails, the actual evidence, the hidden video, the live stream from the street so we can see exactly what’s going on for ourselves without having to access this information through others whose trustworthiness is suspect.
At last, the final trend we called, “Heroic Credibility.” In an age of collapsing trust, where we’re the only source we now trust is ourselves, the daily messages that resonate with us are those that line up cleanly with our own personal values. But there’s a catch. We’re willing to follow, if we believe that you’re credible speaking on the subject of the values we share. But if we feel we’re being lectured to, or feel that you lack any credibility to make lofty statements about what we should believe, we will throw you to the wolves. We’re willing to listen to Patagonia when it comes to environmental issues. But Dick’s Sporting Goods on the 2nd Amendment? Not so much. Our wallets and loyalty to elsewhere.
Our first research outing in 2016 also happened to coincide with our last presidential election. As a quick back of the envelope analysis, we put a scorecard together comparing the dozen or so Republican candidates for president that year. We were just seeing the first rough data begin to come in, with a number of these trends emerging from the data in their very earliest forms. Only one candidate seemed to be hitting on all cylinders: dark horse non-politician Donald Trump. We laughed and dismissed this quick exercise, but only for a minute, because Brexit happened the following week. So we stopped laughing and realized we’d stumbled upon a potential framework that explained the rise of livestreaming, nationalism, brand militancy, and a host of other shifts in behavior.
2020, thus far, as proven to be a centrifuge of technological and cultural forces amplified by unforeseeable events driving each forward. Covid-19 accomplished more to propel technological work-from-home workstyles in a single year than all the marketing dollars in Silicon Valley could in their entire existences. This election cycle has rapidly mainstreamed the shift to raw, with technology driving access to information and candidate availability — not to mention the disintermediation of the traditional media — like never before. We even see a rapidly metastasizing growth of technopolies putting their fingers more heavily on the political scales, suppressing information and individual accounts — some quite public — in the days leading up to this election. We’ve seen this in the past. Now, all nods to civility seem to be gone.
All of which leads us back to 2020 and an election pitting raw versus peak outrage. The trends have been building for four years now and have very much come home to roost. We’ll see in the coming days — or weeks, or months, depending on how the lawyers do — which of these trends plays the bigger role and which of the major influences shapes them come the final election results.