A year ago when Donald Trump emerged a serious political contender, I noticed how uncannily he followed the infomercial huckster bible I’d help develop two decades earlier.
When I was in my twenties, I wanted to work in television, and infomercials offered a way in. The industry was still in its infancy, and could be incredibly lucrative. A single infomercial could produce over $100 million in sales (my record generated over $360 million), so the economics were appealing.
My specialty was working with established companies that utilized the format as an additional marketing channel, with clients that included companies like NordicTrack and Bowflex. I moved on to create what we called “storymercials” for brands like Sony, Apple, and Revlon. Unlike brand advertising, infomercial marketing is based on math, with every airing measured by response algorithms. In pre-internet days this accountability seemed miraculous, and the equations developed are essentially the basis for all Internet advertising today. When the web came along these companies migrated online, and my agency went with them.
The typical infomercial conjures images of a loud spokesman or a washed-up TV star, yelling at a mysteriously enthralled studio audience. While my clients tended to avoid infomercial pitchmen, I sometimes used them. In pre-Caitlyn days, I worked with Bruce Jenner promoting an awful device he claimed would produce six-pack abs. I remember the director muttering, “If this infomercial works, we’ll all go to hell.”
I carefully studied the techniques of many of the great television salesmen: Ron Popeil, Billy Mays; the list is long, but when you break it down there are similarities to every pitch. Here are five of the main techniques Trump utilizes:
- Use gaudy, fake wealth to lure people. The “get rich like me” hook is powerful. Over-the-top wealth convinces the viewing public that the presenter is authentic. When I first started, a popular infomercial promoting “buy real estate with no money down,” featured a rotund Asian gentleman jumping out of a private jet, into a Rolls Royce, then sauntering into a gold-encrusted mansion; for some reason surrounded by skimpily-clad buxom blondes. When Donald Trump mounts his big plane, or gives a tour of his garish Fifth Avenue Penthouse or Mar-a-Lago mansion, he’s following the scam man playbook. Trump University was a classic play on the “get rich in real estate” pitch. I’ve spoken to Trump supporters that justify their vote based on his perceived wealth. “If he’s smart enough to get rich, he’ll probably do great things for the country,” one explained.
- Build credibility via conspiracy theories. Kevin Trudeau, one of the biggest infomercial crooks of all time (and currently in prison for fraud), convinced thousands of people that the government and pharmaceutical companies were withholding information that could save their lives. He offered “the truth” via his expensive books with titles like, Natural Cures They Don’t Want You to Know About. Trump is a basket of conspiracy theories, with the promise that “only he can save us.”
- Create a problem we didn’t know we had. During my career we often searched for solutions for non-existent problems to expand a product’s appeal. I warned America that deadly pathogens were floating through their house, and the only solution was a vacuum from Sears, or a $200 Sharper Image filter. (The vacuum could also lift a bowling ball, just in case you were cleaning a bowling alley.) Trump terrifies us with tales of rampant crime (even though the crime rate is down), an awful economy (even though it’s the best in years), and marauding criminal immigrants (even though we’re at net zero immigration, with little immigrant crime). Like every great infomercial pitchman, only he can fix the problem.
- Establish a mantra. One of the striking aspects of a Trump rally are the frequent mantras he’s established to whip the crowd into a frenzy; thousands of people chanting “build the wall,” and “lock her up.” This is a classic infomercial (and despot) sales approach. Trump admitted testing different slogans, “just to see what stuck.” He learned that trick from infomercial icons like Ron Popeil, who would get the studio audience to scream, “set it and forget it,” to promote his miracle roaster, and his most famous, “but wait, there’s more.” A mantra transforms a crowd from passive observers to dedicated advocates.
- Repetition. When you see an infomercial running frequently over a long period, it means it’s successful. To reach that success, different approaches have been tested, including experimenting with all the above variables. A successful infomercial can air thousands of times per month, reaching millions of viewers. Trump understands the power of repeating a tested message, and in his case tremendously benefited from the enormous amount of free media he received.
Much has been said about the Democrat’s failure to reach Trump supporters, and I’d add that Trump’s demographic intersects heavily with the infomercial consumer, hence he used proven marketing techniques to reach his “buyers,” a segment of the population the Democrats didn’t understand and ignored.
And even though I’ve never had anything to do with Donald Trump, and certainly didn’t support him, I wonder if in some ways my involvement in the infomercial industry helped pave the way for his success. Of course, I never imagined an infomercial pitchman could become President.