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Why you should think of Donald Trump as a media company

How Trump became an incredible unpopular "hit"


What makes a film or a song or a show popular? What makes a hit a hit? Why does one product come to dominate culture and another pass away without so much as a whimper?

There are simple but surprising answers to these questions, and you can find them in Derek Thompson’s new book, Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction. In the book, Thompson, a senior editor at the Atlantic, dives into the psychology of popularity and the economics of cultural markets in a compelling and analytically rigorous way.

In this interview, I ask him about the rules that govern popularity, whether artistic quality is related to success in the marketplace, how the internet has scrambled the cultural environment, and, naturally, how Donald Trump mastered the art of attention-seeking in a crowded media landscape.

Our conversation, edited for the length and clarity, follows.

Sean Illing

The word “distraction” jumps out at me immediately. On some level, popularity has to do with how people use their attention, or what they choose to pay attention to. Why is this the age of distraction, and how has that changed what is and isn’t popular?

Derek Thompson

The number of books published around the world has grown by about seven times since 1980. The number of movies released in the US has grown by about seven times since 1980. The number of original scripted television shows produced on cable networks in the United States has grown by seven times since 1980. I ascribe no specific meaning to the number seven, but what’s clearly happened is that a combination of forces, most importantly the globalization of attention markets and mainstreaming of internet information technology, has massively opened up the supply of cultural products.

Sean Illing

By cultural products, I take you to mean virtually everything we produce, and of course we keep producing more and more and more...

Derek Thompson

Under cultural products, you can include 700-page novels to incredibly funny Steve Bannon memes. We’re just bombarded by so much more than we used to be, and as a necessary result of this explosion of content, a lot more fails. The cancellation rate of a scripted show in TV in the year 2000 was under 10 percent; now it’s 50 percent. So you are seeing that it’s much harder to hit the threshold that we reserve for the word “hit.” So that is why it’s a major distraction.

Sean Illing

If popularity is governed by certain known rules, if there’s a formula for hits, then why are there so many misses?

Derek Thompson

Great question. There is no formula for hits. If there were a formula for hits, then eventually everybody would learn that formula. They would make a zillion products based on the same formula, and none of those products would be hits. To be a hit, by the very definition of the term, means to be exceptionally popular, so there is no formula.

Sean Illing

But there are rules and predictive patterns?

Derek Thompson

There are, I think, really interesting rules about why we like what we like and how culture changes. We’ve learned that consumers are torn between opposing tensions. In particular, they’re torn between neophilia — they like things that are new, they enjoy discovering new cultural products and ideas — and neophobia; they’re afraid of anything that’s too new, they don’t like anything that changes their bias or makes them change their habits.

So the trick, as it were, is to follow people’s familiarities and push the envelope just a little bit. One of the examples in the book you see that is done so clearly is Spotify’s Discover Weekly, which rounds up songs for you every Monday based on your perceived tastes. When they were doing internal testing of the app, they wanted all the songs and all the artists to be new, but accidentally there was a bug in the algorithm that let some old songs and old artists that the users had already heard slip in. Then they fixed the bug. What happened after they fixed the bug? The engagement with the app collapsed.

It turns out that a little familiarity engineered into the product made it a better product. I think this principle applies not only just to music apps but to the writing of music as well. People gravitate toward new tempos over old chord structures. Even political essays. What people want, ultimately, from so much of political writing is a new metaphor, a new take, a new conceit to, unfortunately, tell them that which they already know or believe.

Sean Illing

It seems like human nature is such that the mechanics of popularity haven’t changed much over time.

Derek Thompson

They absolutely haven’t. One of the theses of the book is definitely that technology changes faster than people do. Technology changes people’s familiarity. It changes culture, but the things people gravitate to even as culture changes is still that which is not new. What is new and what is familiar can change.

To go back to Raymond Loewy, the father of industrial design, who came up with this idea of MAYA [“most advanced yet accessible”] — in the early 1930s, he looked at the design of trains and said trains now have this kind of ugly weird prominent chimney, and they look spindly and exposed. I want a train that’s made from a single coat of metal that looks like a bullet fired into water.

So he proposed this design in the early 1930s on the Pennsylvania Railroad, and they’re like, “Get the hell out of here.” He proposed it a few years later, and they say, “I don’t know.” He proposed it a few years later and a few years later, and finally, from the mere exposure to this idea, that which had seemed radical was now familiar. So he finally got them to design the G-1 train that he idealized years earlier.

The most important bias of human nature is familiarity. We are bewitched by ideas that are familiar, especially by ideas where familiarity is felt but not overtly clear.

Sean Illing

When I think of “pop” anything — pop culture, pop music, etc. — I think of something lowbrow, common, or crude. How little does popularity have to do with quality or artistic value?

Derek Thompson

I think both cultural producers and consumers want to think quality is destiny. The producers and artists want to think that if I create a movie that’s inherently great, if I write an article or a book that’s inherently great, that if the idea or product is self-distributing, it’ll just go viral. But quality is not destiny. Quality needs distribution in order to be popular, and the best story to bring home this point is the story of “Rock Around the Clock.”

“Rock Around the Clock” comes out in 1954. It’s a terrible song. It plays on the radio a little bit and gets a little marketing and media exposure. People basically ignored it. It starts on Billboard for one week, and then poof, it’s gone. It failed. But through an amazing sequence of events, it has another chance.

Peter Ford, a 10-year-old boy in Los Angeles, who is the son of the Hollywood star Glenn Ford, buys this vinyl record of “Rock Around the Clock.” Peter Ford’s father is having the director of a movie, Blackboard Jungle, over for drinks. The director’s name is Richard Brooks. Brooks says, “Glenn, I need a fun song to kick off this new movie about juvenile delinquency, Blackboard Jungle. Do you have any ideas?” Ford says, “I just basically listen to Hawaiian folk music, but my son actually listens to a lot of rock artists, so maybe he has some music for you.”

Peter Ford gives him a handful of albums, one of which includes “Rock Around the Clock.” Richard Brooks gets it and puts it in the beginning of Blackboard Jungle, in the middle, and at the end. Only after it appears in this new distribution platform, in a movie, does it become the No. 1 song in the country, the first rock-’n’-roll song to ever hit No. 1, and the second-best-selling song of all time.

So if we live in a world where the indigenous qualities of a cultural product are determinative of its ultimate success, then how the hell do you explain “Rock Around the Clock?” It completely failed in 1954 and was one of the biggest hits in music history in 1955. The answer is quality is not destiny, indigenous qualities are not perfectly predictive, and distribution in fact matters more than content does.

Author Derek Thompson.

Sean Illing

What’s the most counterintuitive fact about popularity?

Derek Thompson

The seven-word thesis is that familiarity beats originality, and distribution beats content. I would argue that both of those theses are counterintuitive. There’d be no point in writing the book if I looked at the literature on popularity and said, “Oh, great, everyone gets it.”

I think everyone wants to think that outcomes are deserved in cultural markets, just like we want to think in life that success equals popularity. The story of “Rock Around the Clock” obliterates that idea. The story of the impressionist canon in chapter one where essentially the death of Gustave Caillebotte [a late 19th century French impressionist painter] consecrates the impressionist canon almost in one fell swoop. That suggests that canons are clearly created by historical accidents and historical power structures rather than the books that happen to be the most famous necessarily deserving that title.

We want to live in a world where originality constantly wins and the best stuff constantly wins. But instead, we live in a somewhat arbitrary world where people just want that which is ultimately familiar and it’s the companies which own distribution power who have the capacity to dictate popularity.

Sean Illing

I get the power of distribution, but I’m trying to get in the heads of audiences as much as possible. You say, for instance, that audiences are hungry for “meaning.” My sense is that they’re far hungrier for diversion, for entertainment. Perhaps these notions aren’t incompatible, but I wonder what you mean by “meaning.”

Derek Thompson

I have a very specific definition to use and popularize again in the book. There are two terms from metacognition: fluency and disfluency. Fluency means ease of thinking. It’s reading an op-ed that tells you exactly what you think. It’s looking at a beautiful painting that you’ve seen 17 times before and you love staring at it when you feel anxious.

Then there’s disfluency. Disfluency is difficulty of thinking. Disfluency is having to confront someone in an argument who’s making a passionate, articulated case for something they believe in. It’s listening to Swedish electro, some kind of byzantine electronic music that you’re having a hard time following because there’s no discernible chorus. In many ways, you can plot almost any cultural product on a spectrum between disfluency and fluency, how much difficulty of thinking does it arise.

The most special moments in culture are those where fluency emerges from disfluency. You’re sitting down with a crossword puzzle and you can’t think of the answer to the question, and suddenly it comes to you. You’re watching a thriller or reading this book where the main character is struggling with this occult problem, and then suddenly it’s revealed — aha! The disfluency yields to fluency. People even have this experience through modern art. They enjoy figuring out modern art and allowing there to be this dance in their head about its meaning and symbolic value.

That moment where disfluency moves to fluency is called the “aesthetic aha.” That’s not my term. Psychologists call it the aesthetic aha. That is a moment of meaning creation. That is a moment of meaning-making. People want to make meaning out of chaos. It’s why we tell ourselves stories.

Sean Illing

The media landscape has changed radically in the last decade or so. How has the internet and the erosion of gatekeepers scrambled the cultural environment?

Derek Thompson

I think the simplistic but nonetheless true story to tell is that the 20th century was a heyday for scarce and powerful broadcasters and therefore a heyday for mass media entertainment, and that the invention of the internet smashed the mass media. As a result, most of us live in worlds that are more fractured and digitized. But as result, the biggest broadcasters are, weirdly, all the more powerful.

The ability to reach many, many people at once is so much rarer now that it’s also a more powerful thing, so when you do have a cultural force like 50 Shades of Grey, Pokémon Go, or Donald Trump — I’m kind of mixing genres here — those things become bigger than ever.

President Donald Trump raises his fist to the crowds during the 58th US presidential inauguration.
Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Sean Illing

Well, you mentioned Trump, and obviously we can’t escape this conversation without talking about Trump. You argued in a recent New York Times piece, which was adapted from your book, that Trump’s ascendance follows a familiar trajectory.

Derek Thompson

I make the case that Trump is a media company — and other people have made this case as well — a media company just by virtue of how he thought about and approached the campaign. He identified an audience demographic and served them desirable content. I think that’s very much at the beginning of the campaign and still is very much what his administration is all about. It’s a very specific sliver of the populace — white, less educated men and women — but he tells them what they want to hear.

I think his rise can be broken down into three parts, which form the three rules of entertainment. First, all successful Hollywood franchises right now are essentially superhero franchises. Donald Trump is not subtle about telling voters that he was going to be a superhero. His line in the Republican National Convention that only he can fix America's problems, that he’s not going to work with anyone, that he’s the people’s champion, their superhero.

Second, he really is brilliant in distributing himself on channels that he doesn’t control. In many ways, you can argue that this is the chief challenge of modern media. Vox and the Atlantic, like other media companies, rely on channels that we don’t control in order to reach our maximum audience on Facebook or on Twitter. But even more than that, the biggest pieces on our sites have to hit other blast points as well, like Reddit. We rely on the power of broadcast control. Trump was just brilliant about using Twitter to antagonize and titillate the producers of broadcast media so they couldn’t help but put him on television. He used that exposure to his advantage, particularly in the Republican primary.

And then finally, you can think of his strategy in the White House now as essentially a media monopoly. He says he no longer thinks that any negative news about him is true. He’s telling all of his supporters to disbelieve anything about him that’s negative. There are sycophantic sites out there that he’s using to create a White House media group. He’s trying to monopolize the story of his superheroism.

In this sense, I think what he’s doing is very much like entertainment.

Sean Illing

Here’s the thing about Trump: He’s both unpopular (in the conventional sense of that term) but also immensely popular in the sense that he’s seen; the lights are always on him. In a world in which content is king but distribution is the kingdom, his strategy is the right one.

Derek Thompson

You made two interesting points there. Our metrics for popularity are really weird sometimes. Our metrics for popularity in elections are even weirder. I mean, Hillary Clinton clearly won the popularity contest. No reasonable person disagrees. Clinton won the popular vote.

Donald Trump’s ratings are absolutely ginormous — that’s obvious. But this is why we need a separate measure that notes even though his ratings are really high, actually everyone hates him. It speaks to the fact that representation and popularity can be both important and misleading.

Sean Illing

So in a way, Trump is a profoundly unpopular “hit.”

Derek Thompson

That’s right. He’s a cultural product in that tens of millions of people loved him enough that if it was any other industry, he would be considered popular. He’s not especially liked by most Americans, but his show, as it were, is a hit. If Trump was a musician, he’d be the most popular musician in America.

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