Thank You, Donald Trump

What Marketers Can Learn From His Shameless Birther Crusade

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The whole "birther movement" was an annoyance for me. I usually push past heavily hyped news stories like this. I can be happy, sad or neutral in the moment, and move on. But then came Donald Trump.

His birther push really got to me. Never in our history has a U.S. president ever been confronted with such demands to show proof of his citizenship after an election.

Something about Trump's antics reminded me of my experiences as a young child living in the segregated South, during those pre- and early post-civil rights days while racists used misinformation and half truths to vilify blacks, America watched silently. Instead of addressing the messages, no one acted until the rhetoric encouraged someone to commit some horrible act that resulted in the loss of life or injury.

For more than three years, birthers have attacked the citizenship of the President, dismissing the original birth certificate. It only took a CNN investigation, a release of his long form birth certificate, and two key players at the White House Correspondents' Dinner -- the President of the United States and Saturday Night Live write Seth Meyers -- denouncing the lack of facts supporting the birther argument for Donald Trump to stop his tactics.

Trump's behavior not only disrespected Barack Obama and the office of the presidency, but he re-wounded the black community.

Despite the presence of aspiring politicians like Herman Cain and a sprinkling of blacks in the movement, the fact remains that many blacks perceive the birther message--along with the "take back our country" mantra of the Tea Party groups -- as more than an attack on the President. It's also seen as an attempt to remind blacks of their place.

Nonetheless, there's a silver lining in this dark, dark cloud.

Here are four lessons that we can thank Donald Trump for.

1. Trump helped jump-start engaging conversations about racism in the U.S., helping America break her silence.
True, Trump exposed the underbelly of racial attitudes in this country, but there were many who are not buying it.

Finally, we are talking about race. Really talking. Trump's words and actions ignited a fire. Sure the regular cast of characters, journalists and celebrities were speaking out against Trump and racial practices in America, but through the digital realm many others were taking part in the conversation. People from all aspects of society were tweeting, blogging and expressing their thoughts on the issue -- a dialogue was started. America was really talking about how we see and treat each other. Not only did this spur conversation, there was action also.

In fact, through social media, many demanded that Trump be dropped from the Indy 500, one of the "whitest" sporting events in the U.S. Trump pulled out at the last minute citing "busy schedule."

2. It made us recognize that our differences matters.
Knowing what does and doesn't matter to many ethnic groups is important when crafting effective messaging or building strong relationships.

Creating a meaningful and engaging message can't happen by looking past race. Neither does looking past race make us "good Americans," better marketers or creatives. Taking race off the table means overlooking cultural insights that could help connect with ethnic audiences on a deeper level. It robs marketers of the chance to build a strong relationship with the audience.

Race and culture are often entwined. Thus, reaching many ethnic groups requires understanding both the racial and cultural influences that play a part in shaping their decision-making process. Without this understanding, a message that seems simple and harmless can actually turn into a PR nightmare. For example, it's a big disconnect to refer to Black Americans as "the Blacks" as Trump did in a radio interview. It's similar to "you people," which for many ethnic groups is offensive as it is an interpretation of being ostracized.

3. (Black) History Matters.
Failing to understand the history of an ethnic group and how it shapes their perception can lead to some major miscues. Requiring a person to submit a birth certificate or identification may seem like a reasonable request unless you understand the ethnic history of the person being asked.

Sherrilyn Ifill, professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, and Goldie Taylor, Editor-at-large for, weighed in on an important history lesson that dates back to a time when Black Americans had to show papers to prove their legitimacy. By doing so, these two authors help connect the dots from the past to today, while exposing society's attitudes about race and bring clarity to Trump's re-wounding of Black America.

Taylor opens her blog post with the sad, emotional and real story about her great, great grandfather that took place in 1899:

"Show me your papers!" Major Blackard, then just 19 years old, dug into his trousers in search of his wallet. He patted his jacket, but could not find his billfold.

… he would spend the next 21 days in a cramped, musty cell. That's where his older brother Matt found him, beaten and bloodied. Matt returned with Major's employer later that day, wallet and identification card in hand, to post bond.

Ifill writes:
This is not new. Black leaders always have had to prove their "legitimacy" and their allegiance to America. The way to smear the NAACP in the '40s, and leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King in the '60s, was to suggest that they were Communists working against America.

This ongoing challenge to our legitimacy is the reason that so many blacks from earlier generations were told by our parents that we had to be smarter, more well-mannered, more well-spoken and more circumspect than our white counterparts. We had to prove ourselves worthy of the respect of whites, and to do so required proof that we "belonged." It's among the great ironies of race in this country that when black leaders display these same qualities, they are accused of "elitism," no matter how humble their origins.

How could better understanding all of this have helped Trump? We can only speculate, but Trump could have used a better understanding of this history to his advantage in two different ways:
  • Stay away from the birther issue all together. After all, he claimed to have "a good relationship with 'the Blacks' why should he alienate them?

  • Use this history to educate and encourage birthers to end their movement. Sure there are hard core birthers who are never going to let it go, but by using his wealth and influence in this way, he could have helped unify the country, elevated his brand and showcased himself as a leader vs. a "carnival barker" who is now losing his brand luster and followers daily.
4. Journalism 101: Journalism's first obligation is to the truth.
Today, because of the rise of digital, news moves at a much faster pace, but there are certain tenets of journalism that we have to hold onto, including a crucial one: the truth first. Not only did media stray from this, they also failed to verify the information that Trump was putting forth as fact.

Instead of behaving like the press, media became a de facto public-relations channel for Trump, awarding him continuous exposure, access and time without challenging him to substantiate his claims. By holding a double standard for Trump -- because of his wealth, privilege and America's fantasy of him as a business leader -- the media was bamboozled, costing them a measure of their reputation.

Still the entire Donald Trump incident is more of an opportunity than a blemish for America; it gives us a reason to move the dialogue on race forward, and hopefully moving our entire society closer to the ideas and principles it represents. For marketers, it offers the ability to learn from someone else's missteps and recognize the importance of understanding the history and culture of the group they are trying to reach.

Pepper Miller is the founder and president of The Hunter-Miller Group, Chicago. In September 2005, Pepper and co-author Herb Kemp launched the landmark African-American marketing book, What's Black About It? Insights to Increase Your Share of a Changing African-American Market
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