Donald Trump and The Last Great Inadequacy Ad

In a normal presidential election, we’d long be over talking about the campaign. But it goes without saying, the presidential election of 2016 was anything but normal. And besides, if the president himself is still talking about the campaign (306 electoral college votes!), perhaps I shall be forgiven for dwelling on the subject. 

Honestly, as much as we might not want to, we need to talk about this campaign. If for no other reason than because, well, it’s still running. But more than that, we need to talk about the campaign because, as do-gooders, we need to do a better job of countering its reverberating effects. The campaign is not over. Neither, therefore, is the counter-campaign.

Let’s start with what happened. Then we’ll talk about what to do.


What the hell happened?! 

Not a new question, I get that, but an enduringly poignant one nonetheless.

Here’s my theory. For me, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign represented the pinnacle of what is referred to as “inadequacy marketing.” Delightful term, huh? 

Inadequacy marketing follows a simple, two-step formula. First, name – or, better yet! create – a problem, an anxiety that preys on humanity’s worst traits. Cater to humanity’s baser instincts and fears. Second, present your product as the only viable solution to said problem.

Sound familiar? TV infomercials have totally owned this concept for decades. 

Let’s assess how we all got sucked into a massive inadequacy ad in 2016.

Donald Trump’s campaign followed the inadequacy marketing formula to the letter, repeatedly and insidiously injecting a clear and terrifying worldview. 

At the heart of it was the following message: You are being cheated. Immigrants are cheating you. Other countries are cheating you. Our own government is cheating you. Forces from all around are out to get you and your family and you have been at their mercy for too long.

It’s a simple message that resonated in the hearts of Americans who have genuinely struggled and felt left behind. But more than being logical, it catered to a felt need. Trump’s message preyed on fear and frustration and a sense of hopelessness.

Then, the key – introduce the magic solution: Donald Trump. Donald Trump knows how to do a deal. America will be great again. I, Donald Trump, can make this feeling go away.

In sum, Donald Trump treated this country the way Listerine did in the 1920’s. Just replace “you are being cheated” with “you have halitosis and no one likes you,” and “Donald Trump will make America great again” with “Listerine will cure your socially unacceptable bad breath.” 

End of story. 

The thing about inadequacy marketing is that it incapacitates and falsely empowers the viewers, enslaving us to the magical fix of whatever product (or president). In order to counter it, then, you need a campaign that does the opposite – one that activates, that puts your audience in the driver’s seat, that demonstrates that they are the hero they’ve been looking for.

The good news – and the bad news, for those of us interested in getting a full night’s sleep again at some point – is that the campaign isn’t over. There’s still time to counter. There’s still time to activate.

The counter to inadequacy marketing is what often gets called empowerment marketing. It’s the kind of marketing that speaks to goals, visions, possibilities, opportunities. It’s about emphasizing the best of what humanity has to offer, as opposed to dwelling on what’s lacking. Empowerment marketing acknowledges that no product (or president) makes a person great; it only facilitates that process.

So, do-gooders and do-gooding organizations, we have a lot of work to do. The current administration is preying on our weaknesses. It’s determined to create the kind of America Trump described in the first place. And all the while, this continued inadequacy campaign is threatening to turn us into complacent, passive consumers.

Not acceptable.

Here is your mission —

  1. Stop talking about yourself. You are not the hero. Your audience is.
  2. People will forget what you say, they’ll forget what you did, but they’ll always remember how you made them feel. 
  3. This campaign is not over, so you are not done.

Want to learn how to dodge inadequacy marketing and tell inspiring, effective stories that make your audience the hero? See3 is here for that! Ask Miriam about our workshops designed to bring out your organization’s courageous, do-gooding spirit and get your team on track to creating impactful digital communications. Drop her a line at [email protected]

Author: Miriam Brosseau
  • Marketing
  • Presidential Campaign
  • Empowerment
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