Forty-five years ago, I reviewed some books about advertising for a magazine I worked for called State and Mind. The magazine looked at the interaction of politics and psychology The title of one book I reviewed was Snap, Crackle and Pop: The Illusion of Free Choice in America by Jeffrey Schrank. The reason our magazine would review such a book was because advertising strategies can be powerful molders of consciousness and behavior. Despite the decades that have passed since I read and reviewed the book, one fascinating part of its content has remained fixed in memory. And that is the idea that so many of the advertisements that most of us find silly, childish and demeaning, are created so on purpose, so as to make viewers feel superior to the ads they are watching. Looking down on the ad, the psychology of such advertising goes, even or especially feeling disdain for it, makes us feel good about ourselves, smarter and more discerning than something we know cost fortunes to produce-- and that translates into a positive association with the product being advertised. So that then, when we’re shopping, and see the product on the grocery shelves, for example, that good feeling is elicited and we’re likely to buy the product, even
if—or, in strategic terms, precisely because—all the while we think it was badly advertised and that we probably could have done a better job than those who made it. Although this strategy of emotional appeal and association with positivity has many permutations in advertising, this one is particularly powerful in Trumpian terms, where many of his supporters are vulnerable to not feeling particularly good about themselves. After the 2016 election, I read books like Hillbilly Elegy and White Trash to try to better understand the people who, to me seemed puzzlingly to both like and vote for Trump but also be likely to be most hurt by his rich -folk favoring policies.
The psycho-sell outlined above is a powerful dynamic at play in Donald Trump’s campaign. Trump and his handlers have, in Schrank’s words, been able to “gauge values and hidden desires of the common person.” There are probably very few Americans who would call prisoners-of-war ‘losers’ or mock someone with a neurological condition, brag about committing unwanted sexual aggression or even mispronounce Thailand. Seeing and hearing Trump do those things makes many of us all feel superior to him and thus “smarter than the President.” During a time of widespread sickness and unemployment, scarcity and fear, many of us questioning our choices and/or bemoaning our fates, it can feel good to know that the President is below us in knowledge and integrity, in both common decency and common sense. For all we’ve lost or lack, at least we know better than to do or say THAT! And we can translate such feelings of superiority into an association with Trump that is positive, just as the strategist “advertisers’ of his campaign would have us do. It’s curious that so many of the mask-defying, confederate flag flying and gun toting folk who call Liberals “sheep,” are themselves, with due respect to the animals they malign, the ones headed passively to literal slaughter. According to the American Prospect, “Income, even more than age, race, or ethnicity might be the most significant driver of Covid-19 deaths.” They are not even questioning, let alone resisting, the mind-controlling methods that have them buying a product that will cost them too much, make them sick and not even taste good in the process beyond that temporary false boost of positivity the ad men designed for them to feel.