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In a post-rational age, smart marketers focus on feelings, not facts

From Brexit to Trump, we’re no longer living in an age of reason. When pseudo-logic is everywhere, emotion is what breaks through

Donald Trump with a plane that bears his name

(Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty)

Baseless provocation has become big business in politics lately—take Brexit and the improbable candidacy of Donald Trump for two particularly vivid examples—and, if they have any sense, marketers are taking notes. The Donald has proven to have a particularly sick genius for whipping up a crowd, with his trademark mix of belligerent non sequitur and naked pandering. Its appeal doesn’t seem broad enough to get him elected, but it’s certainly enough to make people pay attention, and that’s a hot commodity these days.

Pundits now anguish over our “post-factual democracy,” in which people’s politics aren’t rooted in principle anymore. If voters aren’t being even slightly cerebral about the destinies of nations, will they be any more so when it comes to toothpaste and canned soup?

That may seem like a leap, but brands have fed on the zeitgeist since forever. Ad people like to believe that they create the public’s tastes and moods (when they’re not “disrupting” them), but it’s usually more a matter of paddling around on their intellectual surf boards, searching for a cultural wave they can profitably ride to the beach. These days, though, maybe for the first time ever, they’re plying the wrong ocean. While keynote speakers bluster about awesome products, and smug digerati busily codify consumer behaviour, those very consumers are developing an antagonistic distrust of objectivity, or what passes for it. We’re competing in emotional times, now, and reason has become obsolete.

Though the debate over emotional versus rational advertising is as old as the martini, rationality’s days have been numbered for some time. Its origins are found in the industrial age, when the whole of corporate might was thrown at finding new consumer problems to solve. But socks can only get so white, and cabs only so easy to hail. It’s inevitable that consumers would turn their attention to more profound themes when it came to choosing brands. Marketers should have been ready for that, but nobody was ready for today’s seething frustration. This isn’t evolution, it’s insurrection. Finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish between nuance and prevarication, people are raging against even having to try.

Nobler minds can ponder what this means for democracy—but marketers should still be paying attention. If there’s no distinction between claims and lies anymore, then the only truth people will trust is the one they feel. And they’ll soon bring that bias to the mall, not just the voting booth. Consider: 20 years ago, the ad campaign judged most effective in America was about the perils of switching dog food. This year, it was moms advocating for gun control. Canada’s effectiveness champ two decades ago was a new flavour of mouthwash; this year, that same gun control–campaign shared top honours with P&G, which turned buying feminine hygiene products into an act of political defiance. When pseudo-logic is everywhere, feelings are what break through.

Turning a brand into a social cause is risky business. Most corporations are already short on moral authority, even before you add in the profit motive. But this is a good moment to look up from our spreadsheets and remember that consumers are human. It’s easy to criticize people for abandoning reason and making choices from the heart, especially if those choices seem bonkers. They’re not fools, though; they’ve simply fallen back on ancient instinct to cope with an over-marketed, amoral world.

Which means that, if we’re not careful, claims-based advertising (30% more peanuts in every bite!) can inadvertently make things worse instead of winning people over. Ads are supposed to provoke. Even if your snack food is never going to save the world, it’s no longer an option to ignore how consumers feel about where it fits in their lives, or how they want it to. It’s no longer an option to be indifferent to their vanities, their insecurities, or their aspirations, because those things may be the last, best way to earn their attention. To coin a phrase, if we want to make advertising great again, we need to get more empathetic, not more clever.