This article is an observation about the evolution of marketing, specifically the politics of debate and the medium of television over the past 50 years. It is not an endorsement for any candidate or a discussion about the merits of any candidate.
It’s a marketing piece that is relevant to any Christian who wants to understand their audience with the hope of taking the gospel to them. My goal for this piece is for you to reflect upon a dramatic “marketing culture shift” over the past half-century.
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What most people don’t seem to understand about Donald Trump is that he has not only embraced the medium, but he has changed it. He has taken what Kennedy did to a new level.
On September 26, 1960, the timeline of politics was forever changed after John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon squared off for the first ever nationally televised political debate. The handsome, but unknown Kennedy was going up against the political machine and seasoned warhorse Richard M. Nixon. This was supposed to be a quick night’s work for Nixon.
By the end of the sixty-minute time limit match between these two combatants, Nixon was sprawled out on the mat unconscious while Kennedy became the new heavyweight champion. It was on that night the political season was over, and what was going to happen a few weeks later in November was anti-climatic. Here is how Time magazine reflected on that history-changing event on its 50th anniversary:
On the morning of September 26, 1960, John F. Kennedy was a relatively unknown senator from Massachusetts. He was young and Catholic — neither of which helped his image — and facing off against an incumbent. But by the end of the evening, he was a star. It’s now common knowledge that without the nation’s first televised debate — fifty years ago Sunday — Kennedy would never have been president.
But beyond securing his presidential career, the 60-minute duel between the handsome Irish-American senator and Vice President Richard Nixon fundamentally altered political campaigns, television media, and America’s political history.
It’s one of those unusual points on the timeline of history where you can say things changed very dramatically — in this case, in a single night, says Alan Schroeder, a media historian and associate professor at Northeastern University, who authored the book, Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV — Time Magazine
Sight vs. Sound
The two things Kennedy understood (or stumbled into) were the medium and the mind of the American public. Though nobody could tell you today what they debated about, everyone who watched it could tell you what they saw. The sweating, stammering Nixon who was recovering from a recent stay in the hospital cowered under the bright lights, while the calm, cool, and collected Kennedy seemed to tower over his opponent as the seconds ticked by.
What they were saying became less important than how they said it until it didn’t matter any longer that Kennedy was a Catholic, too young, and didn’t have enough experience. It also didn’t matter that Nixon had spent his entire adult life in the political arena dusting off foe after foe. Sitting next to Dwight D. Eisenhower for eight years was not enough political cred to carry the election.
1960 was a transition point where Americans owning televisions jumped from 11% the year before to 88% by the time the debate aired. A bright and shiny omnipresent experience was sitting in our living rooms where we could watch the world like never before.
I realize it is hard for us to image the power of television because our ubiquitous friend has always been a family member, babysitter, diversionary strategist, worldview sculptor, and sleep agent.
Not so in 1960.
It was a first-time event. Imagine seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. You walk to the rim and look over. Then you look to the left and right. As far as the eye will travel, there is no end to its wonder. Then you try to capture what the eye was strained to see in a word — the right word. You can’t. Years later you may not remember the details of your vacation, but you’ll never forget that time you first looked over the rim.
That was the telly in 1960.
Kennedy embraced the medium in September and narrowly beat out the old warhorse in November. We had a new president, and the television became the marketing means of choice to persuade the masses. (BTW, it is said that most of the people who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon had won. Sight over sound…and substance.)
Enter Donald Trump
This is what people don’t understand about Donald Trump. They also don’t understand how he has not only embraced the medium, but he has changed it. He has taken what John Kennedy did to a new level–a surreal level. Kennedy’s generation had their heads in books and their ears tuned to a radio. Trump’s generation does far less book reading and radio listening compared to the amount of television medication being consumed on a weekly basis.
You can pick any random stat about TV viewing, and it will always be more than other mediums. This New York Daily News report said the average American watches over five hours per day. That is a staggering number. The average American is not reading five hours a day.
The shaping influences provided by the people behind the TV curtain have been in full swing for over fifty years.
To what degree Donald Trump knows this, I do not know. What I do know is that he is the only political figure who knows how to act out what we have grown accustomed to seeing in the movies and television. Think hyperbole.
Donald Trump is WWE personified. He is not real. He is a fictitious Marvel movie played out on the political stage. He’s a WWE character whooping it up before the masses. Do you know why wrestling has been so historically popular for decades?
Wrestling is the arena where you can watch live hyperbolic action heroes do what you can’t do — beat up other people. Whether it makes the fan feel affirmed to see good triumph over evil or the grappling lets off a bit of mundane-life-steam, wrestling has proven to persuade the will of masses.
In the early days of wrestling it was good triumphing over evil, but over the last few decades, even the villains are celebrated because they are given better storylines, which means the scripts between good and evil are so blurred that no one discerns or cares.
It’s not about who they are, but what they can do — or in Donald’s case, what he says he can do whether he can do it or not.
Out With the Old
This is why Jeb Bush looks so lost on a debate stage. He may look better than Nixon. He may be able to beat Kennedy. But that was fifty years ago. The script has changed. The viewing audience is different. Donald knows it’s not a political debate.
Nobody told Jeb and company.
Marvel movies and WWE are not about reality. Neither are these debates. The debates are about genitals. Imagine these kinds of debates in 1960. They would have cut to sixty minutes of commercials.
People don’t know the Undertaker’s real views on life, family, or politics. They don’t care. They just want to be entertained. John Cena, the Rock, and the ‘Taker are about an inch deep and a mile wide.
Donald Trump is entertaining to a large portion of America because he says things that a pent-up and angry culture has been saying from a smaller stage for decades. The person who taps into the American consciousness on a grand scale will be hard to beat.
“Who cares what he’s saying!!” (That’s not a question to be answered or a statement up for debate.) “He’s saying it like it is. That’s exactly what I think about our political system.”
When an entertainment medium (WWE) can motivate grown men to paint their faces and yell obscenities in front of their children in a public venue, why are you surprised that the political medium can capture the mind of the politically frustrated to where it does not matter who the person is as long as they feel vicariously affirmed?
A Mysterious Dilemma
Here’s the irony: Donald Trump could be the greatest president this country has ever produced or he could take the whole country to hell in a hand-basket.
I’m not endorsing Donald Trump. I’m merely observing the evolution of marketing, specifically the politics of debate and the medium of television. While I can appreciate and learn from marketing genius, there must be more put forth before you buy the product.
This is not politics. It’s WWE.
Also published on Medium.