Humans have a tendency to believe things used to be better, although when those things were better depends on who you ask and the motivation behind their agenda. For example, I believe things were better when I was a kid and we could ride bicycles around the neighborhood all day without cell phones, without the risk of abduction or harm…just kids doing kid things in the fresh air. As long as you were home for dinner, all was good.
Millions believed Donald Trump would make America great again, as though we could erase present-day reality and replace it with some glorified picture of the past.
Trump’s success in spreading this message was due to its lack of specificity. Each set of ears could interpret the words as they wanted. Accordingly, for some, making America great again meant we could harken back to a day when white men controlled the world, women stayed at home, children were obedient, races were segregated, and minorities actually were in the minority. For others, Trump’s campaign slogan meant the elusive and undefined American dream they believed they had been promised actually would come true.
And that was the beauty of the message. Like all effective propaganda, it relied upon a simple phrase that resonated with millions because its true meaning was never really revealed. It meant whatever you wanted it to mean.
Good advertising uses this same technique. Jenni Romaniuk of the Ehrenberg Bass Institute for Marketing Science recently wrote the true purpose of advertising is not to persuade someone to do something, but rather to “shape memories.”
This does not mean all advertising needs to use nostalgia as its key theme, although the technique has been used effectively for years. Smart marketers know when brands elicit memories of the past, consumers can pick and choose what they want to remember and selectively mold the message to their personal liking.
Great advertising often allows consumers to fill in their own backstory, because the audience typically will select favorable traits to associate with the product or brand. That is why Coca-Cola doesn’t advertise how it tastes, but rather how it makes you feel. The beverage giant is one of the world’s largest advertising buyers, with a global ad budget averaging about $4 billion per year. Yet, it would be hard to find any Coke ad that talks about the product’s ingredients, price, or even flavor. Almost all the behemoth’s ad spend is geared toward evoking a positive “feeling” about the brand. Such was the “Have a Coke and a Smile” campaign.
Coca-Cola’s rival, Pepsi, uses the same approach, featuring in its ads everything from a basket full of puppies to its brand-new slogan, “That’s what I like.” New ads depict ordinary people who find the sound of a can of Pepsi opening spurs them to dance in public. The subliminal message is not that drinking a Pepsi will make you want to dance; instead, it will make you feel empowered and free.
Capturing the zeitgeist of the time, Pepsi aims for “people who live lives out loud, without worrying about other things,” said Todd Kaplan, vice president of marketing for the company. Could this be the same demographic profile as Trump-supporting, anti-maskers who feel their freedom is impinged upon by what they perceive to be draconian public health measures?
As I and others have written extensively, brands exist in consumers’ minds. This can create problems for companies that want to reposition their image. One highly successful businessman I know in Southern California started a pawnshop and built it into one of the largest jewelry store chains in the nation by using ads that aggressively promoted low prices. After nearly thirty years of this messaging, he wanted to start attracting higher-end shoppers to compete with Tiffany and other luxury jewelers. Unfortunately, the die was set, and almost no amount of advertising would convince consumers his brand represented luxury after years of promoting it as inexpensive. Many other brands also have failed to reset consumers’ mindsets during a product re-positioning. Like it or not, once a brand has taken hold of a corner of a consumer’s mind, it is difficult to reshape their opinion.
Historians may argue whether Trump studied the rules of effective propaganda or simply instinctually knew how to craft a message that would capture the adoration of millions of Americans by allowing them to shape and fill in their own associations. The message he alone could make America great again was short on specifics but long on invoking feelings of pride, anger, fear, revenge, and empowerment.
Ultimately, the purpose of advertising is to create favorable impressions. Evoking a feeling that “things would be better if…” and allowing consumers to fill in the blank with whatever they think will accomplish that goal is a powerful tool, indeed.