Marketing helped create post-truth politics, but must resist their lure

 This year’s political campaigns hold an ugly mirror to marketing. In an era where many marketers are obsessed with questions of purpose and social responsibility, politics have run away in the opposite direction, embracing the bad habits marketing is trying to leave behind


The results of the US election draw a line under a shift in political discourse. The rise of post-truth politics is here regardless of who won. The story of this shift is very much intertwined in the role marketing plays in popular culture.

Despite being coined in 2010, the term post-truth politics has only entered mainstream public debate in the past year. The twin shocks of the British EU referendum campaigns and the US presidential election have intersected with a series of compounding factors that are amplifying this specific type of discourse.

The factors include the prevalence of social media, which allows politicians to communicate directly with their followers without any of the fact-checking filters traditionally applied by the media. At the same time, many publications and channels now come with a clear political alignment which also permeates social media. All this biased discourse reverberates through social media channels where it is amplified by the ‘echo chambers’ of like-minded communities and fortified by algorithms which learn exactly what opinions you agree with and feed you more of those that you like.

To make it clear, there was never some ‘golden age of honest politics’. Politics has always contained a mixture of fact, opinion, rhetoric and spin, as well as blatant lies. There’s no ‘pure fact’ politics because fundamentally politics tries to promote one specific value system over others. Often with catastrophic consequences, the machines of PR and propaganda have long been used to broadcast political messages regardless of truth and have become sophisticated as well as inseparable from the political establishment.

Marketing has played a central role in shaping political discourse for over a century. Politics has been branding and selling ideologies, parties and individual politicians. In a world of attention scarcity and emotional numbness is it any wonder that the rate of untruth is accelerating? Regardless of the results of the US election, it seems like the rules have changed, maybe even irreparably broken down.

Unexpectedly, if you’ve followed the shifting paradigms of marketing there’s a cruel irony at play here. In an era where many marketing professionals are obsessed with questions of purpose, social responsibility, sustainability, transparency and authenticity, politics has run away in the opposite direction. Politics seems to embrace the very same bad habits marketing is trying to leave behind. The discourse of the recent British EU referendum campaigns and the US presidential election is a stark reminder of what much of marketing has always been like and still is.

Marketing is one of the most prolific areas of human discourse and sign activity. The exposure and attention some brands get has been historically reserved for politics, state and the Church. Marketing draws from a wide variety of sources, from psychoanalysis and anthropology to critical theory and behavioural economics. And, yes, also politics. And yet, marketing often settles for pushing buttons in the crassest ways: telling people they are inadequate then parading products and services as magic solutions. Today’s post-truth politics seems to be using an all too familiar “dark-arts toolbox of unscrupulous marketing”. Distraction, deception, alienation, fear, shame… it’s all there.

Anthropologist Janine R. Wedel mentions the overall decline of civic trust as a contributing factor.

‘over the last four decades, nearly all of the so-called developed, industrialized democracies have been experiencing a decrease in the public trust in government. In the 1990s, even countries long known for strong civic trust, such as Sweden and Norway, recorded a decline.’

Trump himself declared the system was ‘rigged’ up to the point of winning. If you think marketing didn’t play a part in burning out the synapses of public attention, emotion and trust, you’re underestimating both the ubiquity of marketing as well as the plasticity of the human brain.

So what is marketing going to learn from this fortified wave of political propaganda? Even before Trump won, some marketing pundits have been very keen to point out the things we can learn from this type of politics. As if those tricks aren’t the oldest, most devious moves in marketing tradition. It’s important to mention that the Democrat candidate wasn’t free from these techniques either, just as in the UK we had ‘project fear’ on the Remain side. This past year reminds us of marketing’s worst traits. Do we really want to rely on them as inspiration or a blueprint for the future of our work?

We have a choice, we can turn more diligently to the positive changes — such as the increasing amount of progressive representations of gender and diversity. Or we can be tempted by the power of the dark side and how effective pushing people’s buttons with no regard for their wellbeing can be, as demonstrated by contemporary politics.

Yes, it’s first and foremost an ethical decision. One about the kind of world we want to live in and leave for the next generation. Looking back at human history, divisive, tyrannical societies driven by fear, survival and close-mindedness soon decline into misery and chaos.

The common theme here is abuse of power. And the way marketing abused its powers, newly discovered during an era of media explosion, plays a key part in a tyrannical system where the tools of post-truth politics were born. But hopefully, just as marketing has attempted to move forward, politics won’t continue the current race to the bottom

Short-term commercial success through the all-too-familiar lack of morals may be tempting. Just keep in mind that, perhaps fortunately, the apocalypse is bad for business.

Originally published on Huffington Post

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