C Burns

The 2016 Election, Reality TV and Knowing your Audience

C Burns
The 2016 Election, Reality TV and Knowing your Audience


Liberal America was blindsided, I’m willing to bet a fair number of Trump voters were equally startled that he won. Blindsides are moments when something completely unexpected happens in a vote on a Reality Show, when the script on the game seems to flip with the cast of the vote and the narrative changes.

We’re in the Era of Reality TV and Trump is a master of this game. We’ve all been blindsided and Trump was never here to make friends.

Obviously, it’s not that simple, and we are all hoping, desperately that now that the game is over, Trump will go back to the oligarchic, selfish and hardly republican party linear we’ve witnessed throughout his public life… a solid 50 years of running rampant on society pages, gossip rags and melodramatic competition shows. He’s already proven that some of his campaign posturing simply does not matter to him – and hopefully, the disregard for some of the petty social politics that the party that elected him has enshrined will truly shake things out of their loafers. Now that Season 1 of this presidency is at a close, let’s have our own reunion show here to watch what happened.

I’ll be your host, we’ve all been glued to our seats for the last 400 days waiting for this season of America to roll out, and so pour yourself a yuuuge glass of wine and join us.


But first, a message about our sponsors…

Hillary started campaigning for this job ages ago, she’s a returning favorite from past elections who’s been a public fixture for decades. She was definitely the character that many people loved to hate in the 1990s. Fans loved her pantsuits, watched her stand up for health care and handle the slings and arrows of political opponents. Her detractors did the 1992 equivalent of Twitter trolling: printing bumper stickers and billboards stating “Impeach Clinton, and Bill too.”

The heady days of the early 90s didn’t just bring us the Clintons, but also the birth of modern “Brand Advertising” and methods designed to streamline statistical sampling and focus grouping into forms that are easily brainstormed.

In one of the earliest announcements about the Hillary Clinton 2016 campaign, she announced a partnership with Experian in AdAge – a major Ad Industry publication. Experian is a company you may know as a company that gives out credit scores, but their data services are also used by major advertisers to bolster their research data. In short, while tracking your financial fitness, they re-sell data on consumer trends. They’re in the business of telling advertisers who can spend money on products and who can’t.

To understand the Clintons’ success, and ultimately, why it didn’t work this time around we return to 1991 for a moment and understand Bill Clinton’s Campaign. Bill Clinton, a celebrity candidate himself, played Saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show and appealed broadly to the youth vote – the Clinton team was lauded for understanding the electorate better than anyone else. At the time, they were the first campaign to employ marketing techniques drawn from advertising.

Aside from obvious parallels that can be drawn between Bill Clinton’s 1992 lambasting of  “brain-dead politics of both parties” and the language that drew a crowd to Trump’s side in 2016. For both Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, they appealed to the voters who prefer the word 'methods' to 'methodologies' and promised to "drain the swamp" positioning themselves in opposition to entrenched political systems.

The methods used by the 1992 Clinton campaign have become a matter of course in commercial branding, focus grouping and political analysis.  Rather than presenting a disruptive edge – these marketing methods are old school. 

The dark arts of marketing are no longer exclusive or avant-garde. You too can create “archetypes” devise characters for them and learn to treat complex human audiences into easy to quantify stereotypes.



Here’s how one creates “audience profiles”:

  • Research the hard data about who is listening or who is your target market

  • Look at that information and put it into buckets – white suburban soccer moms, Appalachian labor-union conservative, Californian Pot-Loving Surfer 

  • Insert Stock Photos

  • Create character profiles for each of those groups.

  • Do some focus groups and polls from a sample of these people, and glean what’s important to each group in broad strokes.

  • Make decisions about your strategies and tactics using these characters, adjusting as you go based on new research about those groups.

While the intellectual exercise of creating these characters is helpful. Most groups set themselves up for failure by creating these characters and treating them as objects. People are not objects, they’re subjects that change, adapt and most critically, can respond to your observation and study.

The problem with these assumptions is that opinion data has a shorter expiration date than milk.




These character profiles are also highly subject to the bias of the group creating them, if you’re all coming from the same cultural, professional and objective-oriented backgrounds, you are just as quickly adding your own stereotyping into those profiles. Ethnographer, David Snowden uses archetype extraction in organizations to help groups understand their inherent biases. To help them see the things they’re missing. You can read about that in depth here – but in short, when groups are creating their own archetypes he’ll bring in an illustrator and allow the teams to instruct them completely in how to draw those character profiles according to their instructions before the team sees them. When the images are revealed, the team sees not only the character profile, but analyzes them to see where their biases are showing.

The smaller the group of people making those objects, and making inferences the more chance you have of missing things. The smaller your sample group of research, the less likely you are to predict emerging trends, spot outliers or accurately update your models. It’s not just how much data you can gather, but the ability to read the data from a diverse set of starting biases.

Advertising and marketing data research is built on the idea that a small group of experts can accurately target and understand a complex, massive audience by making the complexity of that human system into simple representations. That approaching complex systems as a simple system is possible and feasible.

Hillary’s 2016 team combined all the practiced political stylings of the DNC with the social empathy of advertising.

These are the methods that large, competent organizations use to understand the people they serve. These are best practices. The same people who brought you the targeting for toothpaste commercial were the ones trying to sell you on the way you should live the next 4 years of your life. While you personally may have received that message, it was clear that to many, many others, it fell flat or felt condescending.  

It’s easy to forget tone when your audience is an object, something you can easily push around on a game board. It’s harder to connect directly in a way that feels sincere and authentic. It’s not that the candidate is inhuman, but an entire system is built around them to keep their eye on the prize that reduces people to models, and models to objects. 

These best practices haven’t been updated for political institutions like the DNC or RNC except in cases where the candidate was able to create disruptive change on their own. Bill Clinton in ’92 with character profiles, Obama in ’04 with big data analytics, Trump in 2016 with sophisticated reading of social media.


But enough about Science- Let’s get back to Reality… TV

Since 1992, the Democratic Party has skated on US. Vs. Them rhetoric and 2016 was no exception – not that Republicans get a pass, they are playing the same game and with less style. Creating a competition makes characters who are larger than life, characters you root for or hate-watch. These ultimately are simplified and heightened, and become caricatures of the humans who inhabit those images.

Trump has been a heel as long as he’s been in the public eye. He’s not aiming to be well liked, he’s always done better playing the villain than the hero and he knows it. He has a strong eye for the move that’s going to garner the most attention and that’s the currency of the realm for Reality TV and the current social media environment.

Between Donald Trump and Kim Kardashian, a new kind of “Brand” emerged in the past decade. There have always been socialites, and people famous for being rich and famous. But few with the sort of innate talent and dexterity for knowing how their personal presentation can command eyeballs.

After decades in the public eye, no one was really going to change their deep, entrenched opinion of Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump, and it was somewhat naïve to assume that 18 months of intense media attention would shift those needles substantially. Hilary did her best to appeal to the better nature of her audience – but ultimately many were turned off by what they viewed as condescension or browbeating by her followers, and the unabashed political machinations of the DNC.

Trump on the other hand, he was able to be himself, insisted on it, and never apologized for his machinations, volatility or thin-skinned fixation on retribution for even the mildest ridicule. For Trump, everything IS personal, he knows he’s a rich jerk, he’s built his career on being the richest, jerkiest, gaudiest one he wants to be.

While he’s hardly as politically qualified, his track record in business is at best, worrisome, and his treatment of other people is demonstrably terrible – none of that is surprising.

Speaking directly to their audience….

Both candidates are of a generation that did not need to be immediately technology savvy, and it shows, but where Clinton has built a cordon of technology around her in the form of assistants and teams to support her weaknesses in the use of communications technology (she uses a blackberry, other people tweet for her).

She rode the wave of technological change but was never of it in the way that most Americans have had to be.

Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea, wrote the introduction to a book called The Information Diet, which posits the idea that everyone should take diligent care of how they engage with communications technology for their own personal and mental health. It’s a fascinating book – but reads a bit academic and mildly condescending – if you have the leisure to choose where you communicate, when and how, you may be privileged.

Choosing not to answer work emails, choosing not to engage on social media or to disconnect altogether from your phone is a personal growth problem for people with the wealth. But can feel like an altogether impossible ask for people whose work relies on their availability, who are striving to afford access to these technologies or rely on phones for banking, news, or email for communication. This is not to suggest that people shouldn’t have the ability to do so, or that their mental health could improve, or that we couldn’t take some pointers from France about protecting work/life balance by outlawing weekend and evening work emails, but for a huge swath of the people that Clinton wanted to reach, it’s a luxury and aspiration at best.

Trump, while he is hardly an expert on “the cyber”, engaged directly with some, but not all modern technologies. Like so many successful politicians worldwide, he is a Twitter Troll.

Presidents like Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, who issued a challenge/threat in June, are becoming masterful bullies on social media. “There are so many cowards who are hiding behind anonymity to insult… Let’s see if they are brave enough when we know who they are and where they live.”

21st Century Diplomacy

21st Century Diplomacy

Or for example,  the relatively disliked President of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto whose twitter war with the Donald made news in September after their Mexico City meeting – who is often engaging in online battles with his detractors with limited amount of tact.

While it’s easy to loathe and fear the things that these people are saying, but the fact that they are saying it publicly to you rather than through intermediaries has real human appeal. They’re all using their own words, as Trump has, to the embarrassment and terror of his staff.

Poltifact Lie of the Year 2015 - http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2015/dec/21/2015-lie-year-donald-trump-campaign-misstatements/

Poltifact Lie of the Year 2015 - http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2015/dec/21/2015-lie-year-donald-trump-campaign-misstatements/



From FDR’s Fireside Chats, to Lincoln’s famed speeches, Presidents are known best by what they say to the electorate. So is Reality TV. Trump has always been a master of speaking to his audience, they feel like they know him even though they don’t believe everything he says. And frankly, why would anyone believe Trump?

One critical thing that direct engagement gets a politician is immediate, unvarnished responses from a much wider pool than most data research tests. Twitter responses are fast, direct, and emotional. Social media engagement allows you to ask an audience what they think of something immediately, and get immediate responses. Trump seems to be a master at not only grabbing eyeballs on TV and in the news, but on social media, where as many people worship at his altar, as ridicule and insult him. Trump has thin skin - his online outbursts and reactive attacks are plentiful. He clearly relishes them. His audience is also invigorated, because those that tweak him know they can get to him, and those that love him, see him as not being afraid of a fight. Either way, he gains the attention of his followers every time. 

Not here to make friends…

Trump has literally played himself as a villain in wrestling competitions, has insulted people on live TV, he’s commented on the size of his genitals during a televised primary debate for president. By the time we got to the election itself you could even shrug off bragging about sexual assault caught on tape – obviously plenty of voters did. Why? Because Trump isn’t just a political villain, he’s a Reality TV Villain.

Reality TV Villains without launch codes http://funnywebpark.blogspot.com/2011/04/reality-tv-villains.html

Reality TV Villains without launch codes http://funnywebpark.blogspot.com/2011/04/reality-tv-villains.html

In the history of the genre, people who do bad things to other people to reach their goals win, and win big. Richard Hatch on Survivor, Spencer & Heidi on The Hills, Teresa Giudice from the Real Housewives of New Jersey. The idea that people we connect to are perfect visions of heroism is so old fashioned. These people have scandals, are inflammatory, lash out and scheme to get ahead and even at times, go to jail for massive crimes.

Bill Clinton, it could be said, opened the door to some of this. His incredibly public scandals made it impossible to imagine presidents as personally perfect, or even mostly moral beings. This is not to suggest that they ever were, but the idea of “President” could no longer be seen as above all that.

Trump didn’t need to be perfect, he needed to be seen as someone who would shake things up among the politicians who seem – despite their best efforts – incapable of listening. Trump knows how to flip a table, but also knows how to appear and feel present in a room. Watch The Circus by Showtime, especially watch the 360° videos of the Trump and Clinton rallies. The tones on the ground are remarkably different. It may be subtle to some, but it jumps out to me immediately – the way the Trump supporters feel hopeful and excited, the way the Clinton supporters are shouting and tense.

Again, there are big reasons why Clinton supporters feel tense and the tone is one of intensity, many see the Trump presidency as the end of civil rights for vulnerable demographics and his volatilityas a threat to lives. His volatility IS a major concern, and his goals are not to bring people together… they’re still to grab eyeballs.



The Best Team… Truly Magnificent… The Best People…



Trump talks in superlatives, not detail. He has brought together the BEST people, he lives in the Greatest Country and he’s going to make it Great again. So when we look to his potential cabinet choices leaked in the last few days, we start to see what BEST means to The Donald.

  • Loyalty

Obviously, loyalty to Trump is not always the same as loyalty to the Republican Party. If I were a Republican Party leader I would be as concerned as any democrat about what’s about to happen. But folks like Chris Christie, Jeff Sessions, Rudy Giuliani, Ben Carson and Newt Gingrich are obvious choices.

  • Eyeballs

While loyalty is important, equally important for Trump it would seem is the eye-catching nature of his appointments, the most ratings-friendly cabinet seems to be a narrative that’s being pushed – at least to keep viewership up during the transition. Whether he chooses Sarah Palin for the cabinet or not, he’s playing the game to keep us on the edge of our seats. Calling in former Sheriff Joe Araipio, Trump supporter known for human rights abuses of Arizona inmates –  in for a meeting and making an appointment to lead the Department of Homeland Security is another cue that is specifically built for earned media.  A Celebrity All-Stars Cabinet of former Republican Celebs and inflammatory leaders would definitely keep Americans glued to the news, and all of that attention-share leads back to Trump.

  • Substance, only with Spectacle

While there are quite a few lobbyist names that are on the Trump list, men that have been pushing conservative talking points like “climate change isn’t real” and ardent Trump-Republicans are the only ones with track records on the list. Trump knows his narrative, and going into Trump Presidency Season 2: Transition Team he wants to boost his own narrative with people that can throw in and double down on his messages in direct ways. Representatives who were perfectly comfortable calling for Hilary’s impeachment before her election, lobbyists who know how to spin a web of research to back up potentially tenuous ideas, and people who are beholden first to Trump then to the Republican Party.


It’s time to pack your knives and go…

The final thing about all this is that we really do not know what to do with the challenge ahead of us. Whether you’re a Clinton supporter now deeply concerned for the welfare of friends and family as threats to life and liberty of minorities and vulnerable groups seem inevitable, or even for Trump voters who voted for him know he was going to change something – but who knows what that means.


It’s reasonable to suggest that no one involved has a full view of what a Reality TV presidency means.

We’ve got to make use of what we have, continue to work for what is important to us, and honestly, attempt to get past our fear, anger and frustration to make alliances to take on big problems. 

That means understanding why people didn't vote the way many thought they would, really work to understand one another, and figure out what we all want to improve. 

This isn’t a competition show, this is the future of the United States and its denizens. We as a people are bigger than the 2016 election. We have and have had a tremendous amount of work to do in order to build a future we can all live in. This isn't trying to say don't be angry, or don't be concerned, it's that ultimately, to govern this country or change the world, you'll ultimately need to build coalitions of people who don't hold your same opinion set. 

We may have a challenge that seems stupid and confusing – like a game-master has specifically chosen a scenario designed to bring out the worst in us and force us into dramatic confrontations –  but we need to pull ourselves together and make it work.

About the Author

Caitlin Burns is one of the founders of Pax Solaria. She currently serves as Vice-Chair of the Producers' Guild of America's new media council and has spent more than a decade working as a transmedia producer, expanding multiplatform storyworlds and exploring the use of new technologies and experiences with media projects. Learn more about her here and follow her on Twitter: @Caitlin_Burns