A first lesson in sales is that hope-for-gain is vastly out-paced by fear-of-loss.
Early insurance company television advertising taught the lesson. Warm and friendly didn’t sell policies. Housefires, gruesome car wrecks, and grieving widows with babes in arms, sold policies. Allstate mastered the art by opening their ads with a house engulfed in flames, and closing with protective hands around a peaceful—which is to say, not burning—house. The message was simple, everyday life is full of danger, but “you’re in good hands with Allstate.”
Many companies train salespeople to scare their customers with grim visions of failure, like competitors beating them with big claims and bigger sales.
And selling fear is not just good for companies. Joshua Powell, the former Chief of Staff at the NRA revealed that lobby’s game. The National Rifle Association was, in his words, “rife with fraud and corruption. We only knew one speed and one direction: sell the fear.”
To put a fine point on it, fear trumps hope (pun intended).
Every election season, it seems that Republicans say we should fear Democrats because they are weak on law and order. This year is no exception. In fact, it is an outlier for its sheer ferocity. Of course it’s a red-herring. There have been Democratic presidents and Republican ones, and no empirical data has emerged suggesting that either side has a lock on peace and domestic tranquility. But as a marketing ploy, it remains effective. When Richard Nixon trotted out the first modern day fear campaign based on law and order, it was a racist, anti-poor, anti-immigrant message intended to drive the “Dixiecrats,” conservative Southern Democrats, into the arms of the Republican Party. They called it the “Southern Strategy” because it played on the long standing fears of certain White Southerners that raising up Blacks had to mean taking down Whites.
I speak without malice as a proud Southern transplant when I say that it is easy to play on the fear of those for whom the Civil War is not over. William Faulkner, the great Southern novelist, rings in my ears: “The past is never dead, it isn’t even past.”
The Southern Strategy is cynical and divisive. It is not pretty. It is simple and stark, in the way that fearmongering always is. It worked in 1968 for Nixon, and again in 1988 for George H. W. Bush. It may well work again this year.
First, they must establish an enemy to be feared. It’s admittedly harder this time with a former congressman, senator, and vice president who has spent forty-seven years in the public eye. Somehow, they have to make Joe Biden an empty vessel being filled with the violent notions of the radical left. A tough putt, since he represents the center of political thought in our nation. There are more liberal Republicans, and more conservative Democrats. And while the middle is usually a dangerous place to be politically, in Texas they say the only things you’ll find in the middle of the road are yellow lines and dead armadillos, this time it may well embody the Goldilocks Principle: not too hot, not too cold; just right.
The radical left hates Joe Biden because he championed the 1990s tough-on-crime laws that created mass-incarceration, and because when he chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, he didn’t give Anita Hill’s damning testimony about Thomas’ inappropriate workplace sexual misconduct enough credit. Yet to employ the Southern Strategy, the Trump campaign must paint him as a soft-on-crime patsy of the left. And here’s a hint for them: calling him “sleepy” doesn’t advance the argument that he’s a fire-breathing radical.
This one’s unusually divisive, even for a Southern Strategy play. Nixon presented himself as the peace-with-honor, anti-war candidate who could heal the divided country. Bush may have played the race card with Willie Horton, but he portrayed himself as the continuation of the beloved Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America,” calling up a powerful metaphor of a united country that shone a “thousand points of light.”
The question this election will answer is whether enough Americans are comfortable with chaos, naked self-interest, and division, to give this president four more years.
The Republican National Convention sold fear. Unmitigated, desperate, breathless fear. And fear sells. That they are campaigning on the idea that the current spasms of violence are what we’ll get in Joe Biden’s America is an interesting bit of political jujitsu, considering that it is, after all, happening on Donald Trump’s watch.
Donald Trump sees himself as the greatest salesman ever. Give him this: it does require a certain skill for the arsonist to portray himself as the fire chief.
Selling irrational fear may be the only way.
Jon Sinton is a serial media entrepreneur, who has consulted for NBC News, ABC News, CBS News, and Fox News. He has owned and operated radio stations, radio networks, and digital media sites. Mr. Sinton, a Coronado resident, is the Immediate Past Chairman of the Georgia chapter of the nonpartisan, nonprofit government watchdog organization, Common Cause.