Storytelling is a powerful tool for engagement. The adrenaline of the conflict appeals to us on a deep level.
But stories don’t just exist within the confines of a novel. These narratives exist in our everyday life, and as we recognize and place ourselves within a narrative of conflict, they identify and respond accordingly. Only this time, there’s a shift in the way individuals respond to an antagonist. Welcome to the new American political resistance: purchasing power.
The Trump administration has been a polarizing force in American society, driving supporters and opponents to congregate on either side of the aisle. As tensions run high, more and more corporations are deliberately or accidentally taking a social stance—prompting consumers to boycott or support their products. Whether it’s confronting the leaders of the Trump administration or the “liberal media,” consumers are launching a new form of political resistance against their perceived antagonist: using their purchasing power as an act of defiance.
The New York Times
President Trump doesn’t like the New York Times. In related news, the sky is blue.
Trump has made his disdain for the newspaper clear, tweeting repeatedly about the “failing” New York Times.
The failing @nytimes, which has made every wrong prediction about me including my big election win (apologized), is totally inept!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 7, 2017
In a time when journalism is intrinsically linked with politics and electoral outcomes, a presidential candidate taking a stand against a well-established newspaper is a major news talking point.
However, many were surprised by what happened in November 2016.
Following Trump’s electoral victory, subscriptions to the New York Times increased tenfold. Over 132,000 people reached for their wallets to purchase a paid subscription to the exact paper that Trump had repeatedly decried as failing and illegitimate. The Times‘ 2017 Q1 was reportedly the best quarter for subscriber growth,
The Times didn’t change their approach to journalism or offer a flash sale on subscriptions. Instead, what drove their growth was Trump—and his clear contempt for the paper. In an emotional response to Trump’s victory, rebellion to his leadership came in the form of paid subscriptions.
Fire and Fury
The wild success of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury has shown the effect of a popular narrative on consumer action. There have been many other exposé-style books about the Trump administration—but Fire and Fury is the one to catch national attention. Why? Because of Trump’s adamant public disapproval of it.
Trump named author Michael Wolff a “total loser” in a tweet, and called the book “phony” and said that it was “[f]ull of lies, misrepresentations and sources that don’t exist.” The more that Trump himself protested and tried to delegitimize the book, the more desired it became. Fire and Fury has become more than just a book: it’s a symbol of resistance.
Wolff’s book has been criticized for sensationalism and unverified sources, and it’s certainly not a paradigm of extraordinary journalism. It may all well be made up, or it might be entirely true (though it’s likely somewhere in the middle). But it doesn’t matter to consumers. People aren’t buying it for the hard-hitting journalism, they’re buying it to “get back” at Trump. It’s this draw of combatance, of malicious noncompliance, that is driving consumers to purchase this product. Fire and Fury is flying off the shelf not because it’s a book that everyone wants to read; it’s because consumers want to take part in this narrative of widespread rebellion.
The viral campaign to #DeleteUber developed in response to a politically fueled PR crisis, one that drove consumers to withhold consumption in solidarity with a movement.
In January 2017, Trump enacted his highly controversial travel ban. In protest, taxis in New York City went on strike—while Uber took the opportunity to fill the gap in services and ultimately profit off of this physical protest. It also came around the same time that Uber CEO Travis Kalanick joined Trump’s business advisory group.
In return, citizens banded around a #DeleteUber hashtag, a way to punish the company for their tacit support of the Trump administration. Participating in this movement came at a cost of convenience. Rather than calling an Uber they had to rely on public transport, walk, or go through the process of downloading another app, entering their information, and take the risk of using a fairly unknown company. Despite this inconvenience, consumers used their money to boycott and punish the brand. (An unsurprising byproduct of this rebellion was that Uber’s main competitor, Lyft, profited following this outrage.) As Uber became a proxy for the Trump administration, consumers were driven to rebel; deleting the app became a act of resistance.
In perhaps one of the more creative forms of resistance, 2017 saw hordes of people recording videos of themselves smashing expensive coffee machines on the floor.
Keurig pulled their funding from Sean Hannity’s TV show on Fox News following Hannity’s coverage of Roy Moore. This tweet was the one that lit the match, with a line to “please retweet to offend a Liberal” that, unsurprisingly, generated a lot of engagement. In response, fans of the Fox News production took to their kitchens to destroy their coffee makers.
Liberals are offended by this video of a Keurig being thrown off of a building.
— Collin Rugg (@CollinRugg)
November 12, 2017
Viewers ultimately took part in this consumption-fueled protest as a way of supporting conservative coverage and political candidates. As supporters placed themselves in this narrative where their identity and beliefs were threatened, they rallied to combat the antagonist, using consumption of goods as their platform for rebellion.
So, What Now?
Just as we enjoyed stories growing up, literary narratives and tropes find themselves influencing real decisions in today’s world. As humans, we naturally gravitate towards popular narratives and position ourselves and our surrounding environment within that narrative.
We’re seeing a new trend toward political activism and resistance as consumers, where people will use their purchasing power to punish a brand or a movement seen to be “antagonistic.” Among growing societal divisions, it’s easy to position ourselves as the hero of the story, ready to dive into battle against a larger antagonistic force. While this new wave of activism, rebellion, and defiance holds a lot of power, it also presents a challenge: to stay informed, think critically, and act with social responsibility at the forefront.
As identity politics only get stronger, brands need to decide how they want to position themselves in this new landscape of strongly held opinions before consumers do it for them. It’s clear that consumers are watching and ready to participate in this new era of political resistance—one that happens with wallets, hashtags, and the occasional smashed Keurig.
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Featured image attribution: Roya Ann Miller