Decoding the Stormy Daniels brand strategy

The 7 habits of a highly effective porn star (and Trump antagonist)

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Stormy Daniels.
Stormy Daniels. Credit: Illustration by Patrick Boyer

An immodest proposition: If we're going to keep talking about Stormy Daniels—and it certainly seems like another stiletto will drop at some point—we should try to better understand why her branding and brand messaging have been so successful.

Daniels, whose offstage name is Stephanie Clifford, seems well on her way to becoming to Donald Trump what Monica Lewinsky was to Bill Clinton—an indelible part of the narrative surrounding his administration. A lot of that has to do with the masterly media and marketing game she's been playing, pivoting from niche entertainer to unlikely global household name in a sort of product launch (or product relaunch) of blockbuster proportions.

Here's how she's been doing it:

1. Have a catchy brand name

"We don't know much about politics, but we do know a dirty cocktail when we see one. Introducing the Stormy Daniels, $9 all weekend long."

That was the message on Twitter from D.C. bar The Brighton in January, shortly after The Wall Street Journal broke the news of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen's hush-money payment to the porn star. Hats off to the watering hole, a quick 10-minute cab ride from the White House, for recognizing the obvious: "Stormy Daniels" is a great brand name.

Vaguely suggestive without being unprintable, it also has, for her heartland fans, a spot-on backstory: The first part was inspired by her love for Mötley Crüe—bassist Nikki Sixx has a daughter named Stormy—and the second was inspired by whiskey. "I picked Daniels from Jack Daniels after I saw an advertisement saying 'a Southern favorite,' " she told the HotMovies blog (which covers exactly what you think it does) back in 2008.

Plus, it's conveniently given lazy journalists ready-made headlines like:

"Stormy Watch"

"The Perfect Stormy"

"Trump Forecast: Stormy With a Chance of Mueller"

Daniels accepts an award during the Adult Video News Awards Show in 2008.
Daniels accepts an award during the Adult Video News Awards Show in 2008. Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty

2. Prove you're a star

Just like anyone with virtually no experience can call themselves a "marketing consultant" or "social media expert," there's a title-inflation epidemic in the $16 billion adult-film industry. Anybody who has performed naked even once on camera is apparently free to call herself/himself a "porn star."

Daniels, though, has earned it. "She's the No. 1-ranked porn star on Pornhub, with over 24 million video views," Pornhub VP Corey Price tells Ad Age. "And each time she's made news, searches for her name have skyrocketed exponentially."

The 39-year-old native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who started as a nightclub stripper there at 17, has appeared in more than 250 X-rated films, beginning in 2000; was signed as an exclusive with major porn studio Wicked Pictures in 2002 (she's still a contract player for them); and has been inducted into multiple industry halls of fame, including the one run by leading industry trade publication Adult Video News. (Showtime airs the awards ceremony each year as a 90-minute special; its "Best in Sex: 2018 AVN Awards" is scheduled for later this month.)

When Trump and Daniels met for the first time, at the July 2006 American Century Celebrity Golf Championship in Stateline, Nevada, she was already porn-famous enough that the previous year she had a bit part in the 2005 Judd Apatow comedy "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" (as a fantasy character). Apatow asked her back for 2007's "Knocked Up" to portray a Vegas stripper.

A Daniels movie poster.
A Daniels movie poster. Credit: Amazon

3. Run the show

Here's a key part of Daniels' apparent media mastery: She's a performer turned auteur. She has a director's ability to see the world through a lens, to see a narrative as a framed scene—to see it as viewers will see it.

The Internet Adult Film Directory, the adult industry's version of IMDb, cites her as the director of 91 films, including 2007's "Operation: Desert Stormy" and 2017's "Scandalous." She has frequently appeared in the films she directs.

In 2016, New York magazine's The Cut blog, in a post titled "The Female Porn Director Winning All the Awards," called her that year's "most honored director"—of any gender—in the adult industry. "For years everyone was like, 'Stormy Daniels, she's the best female director,' " she told The Cut's Lissa Townsend Rodgers. "That's always bugged me. What does my vagina have to do with directing? ... Why can't I just be one of the best directors?"

Rodgers wrote that "as a director, she has ambitions beyond the usual vignettes of seemingly random strangers banging each other in half-furnished condos. Her films have character, dialogue, plot, and setting." They include a three-hour-long western, "Wanted," in 2015, which Wicked Pictures hyped as an "epic saga set in 1879 in Diablo City, Arizona—a hard town full of hard people." Rodgers noted that the flick included a "smutty sheriff" and "hooker with a heart of gold."

Think of the Daniels-versus-Trump legal battle as, so far, a three-month-long epic saga set in 2018 in, partly, Washington, D.C.—a hard town full of hard people (and a smutty sheriff, so to speak). It's another Stormy Daniels production—while an unscripted, unfiltered reality-TV star squirms in the White House as his legal team fumbles.

4. Control the reveal

"Avenatti's approach to this story: Drip, drip, drip."

That's how CNN Senior Media Correspondent Brian Stelter summed up Daniels lawyer Michael Avenatti's uncanny ability to keep his client's narrative in the news with an incremental reveal of additional aspects of the drama.

Not showing everything you've got right away is a solid strategy, for sure. It's also the foundational principle of stripping, something Daniels has been doing since 1996. She recently extended her current Make America Horny Again tour, which includes strip-club appearances, through at least November.

But it only works as a press strategy until people feel they're being played. Here's Stelter, one day after his "drip" observation: "Is there a brewing backlash against Avenatti's almost too savvy tactics?"

Daniels and Avenatti have built their media phenomenon based on the slow reveal, but eventually they need to deliver what they've been slyly promising.

5. Master social media

"The thing that is the most noticeable about Stormy, especially on Twitter, is that the usual methods that the internet has of shaming and mocking have little to no effect on her," Brian Watson, author of "Annals of Pornographie, How Porn Became Bad," tells Ad Age. "I'm sure much of this has to do with her understanding of Twitter as a platform." But even pre-Twitter—she joined in February 2009, a month before Donald Trump—he says she had "a history of not having any shame and being willing to engage with and mock haters, to throw water back in their face."

This has become an endless source of amusement for the media. Per The Daily Beast: "Stormy Daniels absolutely slays Trump trolls on Twitter." Per The Washington Post: "For Stormy Daniels, swatting away Twitter trolls is a work of art." The Post cites, among other responses, this one to a hater who called her a "scanc": "The correct spelling is 'skank'... at least according to my business card."

As of this writing, her most recent response to a hater was to one who wrote on Twitter: "@StormyDaniels Hi are you the American whore who wont keep your legs shut or your mouth." "Yes, I am," she tweeted. "Nice to meet ya!"

6. Stay on message

Daniels' unapologetic approach has made her the ideal opponent for (notoriously unapologetic) Trump himself, many have noted. But she's also entirely unlike Trump in that she knows how to pick her battles—and knows which weapons to deploy at the right time.

While the president attacks 99 percent of his opponents by mercilessly strafing them in speeches, sound bites and tweets (and has a one-size-fits-all approach to firebombing Democrats, disobedient Republicans, Gold Star families, war heroes, etc.), Daniels fends off her online critics with self-deprecating humor, and has made a point of refraining from saying anything bad about the president himself—which has probably kept him from retaliating and going after her personally. (History tells us that Trump finds it impossible to bite his tongue—or keep his thumbs still—when criticized.)

Any negative messaging that's come out of the Daniels campaign (let's just call it that for a moment, for the sake of argument) has come courtesy of her campaign manager (er, lawyer) Avenatti. And Avenatti has mostly devoted his time not to attacking Trump, but to mocking the already widely mocked Team Trump legal strategy regarding Daniels, especially the actions of Trump attorney Cohen and his hush money.

Cohen has essentially said that Daniels is lying, which prompted Daniels to file a defamation suit against him this week. But in mid-March, he filed a claim in federal court maintaining that because Daniels violated her NDA, he'll seek at least $20 million from her—$1 million per (unspecified) breach. So ... she's making it all up and she's revealing confidential, factual things about her relationship with Trump that she's not supposed to be revealing? What?

Those who say that Daniels is a worthy opponent for Trump miss the fact that she's not actually treating him like an opponent. She's only directly going after those who attack her credibility—and even then, she leaves the street-fighting to Avenatti as she maintains her (relatively) respectable position above it all. In other words, she outclasses the president.

7. Know your power

As Daniels tells it, part of her connection with Trump had to do with the fact that she called him out on his narcissism and self-regard, teasingly spanking him with a copy of Trump magazine because he wouldn't stop talking about himself. He was a bad boy, she mock-punished him for it and he appreciated the discipline.

Let's return for a moment to Life Before Trump—and specifically to that 10-year-old HotMovies interview with Daniels. Among the safe-for-work passages is this wry exchange that closes out the brief Q&A:

Q: Will you respect me in the morning?
A: Absolutely not.

Q: You're not going to call are you?
A: Nope.

Q: Can we still be friends?
A: Eh ... probably not.

That sense of humor, that sort of sensibility—the seductress who grasps the absurd subtexts of human desire, lust, neediness—might just be the most important hallmark of the Stormy Daniels persona and brand.

Watson, the porn historian, sees a continuum between Daniels' early (and continuing) work as a stripper, her porn career and her current role in the American body politic.

"Stripping and burlesque—and even porn, ultimately—overlap significantly with parody, satire and thumbing your nose at political, social and religious elites," he says. "And from the very beginning, pornography was essentially a way of satirizing the 'proper' public sphere."

Meanwhile, President Donald J. Trump is arguably the ultimate satire—and rejection—of the proper public sphere. He's cheerfully brought vulgarity to the highest office in the land and, come to think of it, has reconfigured American politics as a form of porn, squarely in the S&M genre, in which someone in the White House is always about to get publicly humiliated.

It took Daniels, porn star and pornographer, to help us all get in touch with what governance these days is really about.

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