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Information War: toxic brands bring down the castles too

March 3, 2017



A couple of days ago I posted about an information war waged by private and state actors in the United States, Russia and other countries in which we citizens of liberal democracies are cannon fodder. I ended by suggesting that we’re not as helpless as we think.

This article in the UK’s Independent – once a newspaper, now a website – shows how those who oppose Trumpxit, or Brexump – whichever term you prefer to use for the populist coalition in the UK and the US – can influence the dominant agenda.

Breitbart is losing advertisers, partly because companies don’t wish to risk reputational damage by being associated with an epicentre of the extreme right. Why are they worried? Because they’re being harried by pressure groups, but also because they see push-back in the social media by people who object to Breitbart’s rabid editorial stance.

No doubt Breitbart could haemorrhage cash for years before folding, because it’s as much a mouthpiece for its backers as it is a business. As long as it serves an ideological purpose, it will most likely continue regardless of losses.

But advertisers get skittish about being associated with websites that employ writers perceived to advocate paedophilia, even if Milo Yiannopoulos ended up being fired after appearing to cross that line. Rightly so, because they don’t want to alienate readers who may have voted for Trump, but have no time for narcissists on the right’s lunatic fringe. And for the same reason, companies that through the efforts of careless media buyers unwittingly end up being promoted on jihadi websites recoil in horror.

Breitbart will survive the loss of its advertisers. But what about businesses more closely associated with their owners? The Trump Organisation, for example.

The other day, I heard an advertisement on the radio singing the praises of Trump’s Turnberry resort in Scotland as a wedding venue. I’d never heard Trump’s name on a radio ad in the United Kingdom before. And I wondered how many young couples would want to risk their wedding day being forever associated with a man whose reputation in Scotland is arguably worse than in the rest of the UK. Bullying crofters to sell their land, and lecturing the Scottish Parliament about offshore wind farms spoiling the view from his golf course – The Donald doesn’t go down well with the locals.

I appreciate that I have an outsider’s view. I’m not American, and I would never, ever set foot in a Trump-branded hotel or holiday resort. The last thing I need on a holiday or business trip is to encounter a garish portrait of the leader in the vestibule. I’ve been to too many places in the Middle East where monarchs and dictators similarly beam (or glare) out at you in halls and reception areas.

But how many of the seventy million or so voters in the United States who didn’t go for Trump would touch one of his properties with a bargepole over the next four years? Far less than would have done before he entered the presidential race, I suspect. The brand is becoming toxic.

You could counter-argue that for all the little people like me who wouldn’t go near a Trump-branded business, there must be just as many wealthy individuals who will buy apartments in his properties or do deals with his organisation in foreign countries in the hope of influencing him. Highly likely, but what leverage they will gain is debatable, since the antennae of his opponents in the media and Congress are finely tuned to detect the slightest hint of a conflict of interest.

So what if the unthinkable happens? The man himself is too busy tweeting and fire-fighting in the White House to pay attention to his offspring’s attempts to run his business. The business slowly withers, or perhaps one of his lenders pulls the plug on his loans, precipitating a potential collapse. Nobody, apart from those close to him, knows how fragile or robust his organisation actually is.

Castles rise, and castles fall. Think back to Robert Maxwell. An egotistical and – to many people – profoundly unpleasant man. The owner of a powerful publishing empire, seemingly impregnable in his office at the top of Maxwell House. Behind the scenes, heavily in debt, frantically trying to shore up his business by raping employee pension funds. His demise was swift and shocking. Few people saw it coming. Not even the increasingly nervous banks to which he was in hock had the whole picture, until he disappeared from his pleasure boat in the Mediterranean and his body was found floating in the sea shortly thereafter.

The potential parallels with Trump – at least in terms of the personality of the man and the opacity of his business interests – are obvious, but not exact. Unlike Maxwell, Trump is too big to fail. At the very least his business would be rescued before it imploded. Quite possibly it would be bought out and re-branded.

But the man himself would be emasculated. Seen to be a failure. And the damage to his ego could have dangerous consequences given the office he holds. He would probably find someone to blame – a conspiracy, perhaps. But his credibility would be damaged, and in his remaining years as president he might find his worst instincts curtailed by the powerful players who had hitched themselves to his wagon and were fearful of going down with him.

All this is pure speculation. But not idle. The young Scottish couple who wouldn’t dream of getting married in his golf resort, and the American holidaymaker who avoids his hotels like the plague might yet create a butterfly effect. Damage to his brand could end up triggering a hurricane that rolls over his business and thereby derails his presidency.

Just a reminder that little people like you and me, if we are willing to withhold our custom from those of whom we disapprove, do matter, and can make a difference.

From → Business, Politics, UK, USA

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