Is Donald Trump The Earned Media Case Story We've All Been Looking For?

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Credit: Kelsey Dake for Ad Age

Here's a trick you can play with headlines on news articles and opinion pieces. If the headline is a question, in the overwhelming majority of cases the answer is no. Can bacon cure cancer? No. Did the Russians invent the taco? No. At best, the answer might be maybe. Question headlines are a way to get questionable -- but interesting -- theories to the top of a story. Think about it this way. If bacon did cure cancer, would the headline be a question? (See what I did there?)

So, spoiler alert, Donald Trump is not the earned-media case study we've all been looking for. And the marketing lessons that can be learned from him (if any) are all negative.

What prompted me to write this isn't a newfound disdain for the Donald.

And I'm not writing about him only because of recent media handwringing over how to treat him. All along, he should have been treated as a serious political candidate and held to the same standards, rather than as some entertaining bozo good for a ratings boost.

But what did catch my eye was a recent comment by Les Moonves that implied Donald was good for advertising. "The more they spend, the better it is for us and: Go Donald! Keep getting out there," the CBS Corp. CEO said at an investor meeting earlier this month. "And, you know, this is fun, watching this, let them spend money on us, and we love having them in there."

What's good for networks is good for the country, apparently.

But here's the thing: Donald Trump isn't spending much money on advertising. According to The Washington Post, Jeb Bush "and his aligned Right to Rise super PAC have dropped $28.9 million on TV ads to Trump's $217,000 on a flight of radio ads."

Trump might be goading the competition to spend more now, but it can also be argued that he's leading some early favorites to crash and burn sooner than expected.

Trump's success has been almost purely on the back of earned media. Or as Trump put it to The New York Times earlier this year:

"When you look at cable television, a lot of the programs are 100 percent Trump, so why would you need more Trump during the commercial breaks?"

It's not hard to see why it's very tempting for marketers to try to turn to his campaign for lessons.

Earned media can be a great thing. It can also be a horrible thing. Take a look at Volkswagen. In 2011, the company earned millions of dollars worth of free publicity when it released its Super Bowl ad, "The Force," before the big game. This year, the company also earned millions of dollars worth of free publicity for cheating emissions tests.

Only hacks and your cousin Teddy, who thinks he can do PR because, hey, anybody can, believe there's no such thing as bad publicity.

Trump has earned very little media attention of the positive kind. Pretty much all of it has come from saying outrageous or insulting or outrageously insulting things. There really is no product, no vision. His strategy boils down to "I'm better than that loser." And it just so happens that one of the "losers" is the media that enables him.

Yes, he's tapped into a part of the electorate that's sick of things: Barack Obama, the Republican elite, the media, immigration reform, rich dudes pretending being rich sucks, terrorism and, not to be discounted, the celebrity apology dance. You know the one, when a celebrity gets caught saying something horrible and is browbeaten until an apology is issued and all is made right. So some voters are responding to Trump's honesty—or his version of it.

We can talk all day about passion and engagement. But much like earned media, those aren't always necessarily positive. Just ask anyone who's been caught in a soccer riot.

Even Trump's social media prowess is vastly overrated. In the most recent debate, Bush conceded that Trump is "great at one-liners."

No. He's not. Unless you think "loser" and "you just don't get it" are great one-liners. Or this gem, directed at extremely popular right-wing pundit Michelle Malkin: "She is a dummy." Bad copywriting mixed with horrible audience awareness!

But for marketers still looking for some "learnings," here they are: Say whatever it takes to get attention; trash the competition; insult your audience; repeatedly show you don't know some pretty basic facts; antagonize the media; never apologize.

This is not to say there aren't any actual lessons here. There are definitely lessons for the media, but that would take another 1,000 words. And there's no talking to those guys, anyway.

Trump's campaign will run its course. Yes, there are those pesky polls. Yes, he's been written off repeatedly, only to survive. But as the Times pointed out in a recent story, at this point four years ago, the "race was transitioning from the Cain surge to the Newt Gingrich surge." You know who else led at this point in a nomination contest? Howard Dean. He was ahead in nationwide polls as well as those conducted in Iowa and New Hampshire, according to the Times. Dean, of course, placed third in Iowa, which the Times drily notes, "was before his famous scream."

We've heard more than enough screaming from—and about—Trump for one election cycle. I hate making predictions because I hate being wrong, but I expect we'll be hearing less and less of him come January.

Bush might not have a chance at the White House. But he was right about one thing in last week's debate when he told Trump, "You're not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency."

Bush followed up with this: "Leadership is not about attacking people and disparaging people. Leadership is about creating a serious strategy." Politics aside, that's something marketers should pay attention to.

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