How Stealth Marketing Was Used to Affect the Outcome of the 2016 Presidential Election

Paid operative pretending to be American spreads misinformation to affect the 2016 election as part of a well-known Russian tactic called "dezinformatsiya."
Paid operative pretending to be American spreads misinformation to affect the 2016 election as part of a well-known Russian tactic called "dezinformatsiya."

By Damian Hardeen

After 2016, those who have written books on campaigning and political marketing will have to start from scratch, or, at the very least, add a whole new chapter to their existing editions. That’s because the Donald Trump 2016 campaign blew up most of the norms that drove prior presidential races. In recalling the events that started with his affirmation that he would run to be Commander in Chief through the election results, the Trump team engaged in an all-out blitzkrieg on social media -with him at the Twitter® helm. If success through adhering to “tried n’ true”, established conventions are to be believed as not only sound, but the best practices, then it is very unlikely that he would have won. That he proved to be unsinkable was less of a reflection of his likability and more to do with a campaign that was dependent upon a mixture of propaganda and stealth marketing.

In politics, a modicum of mudslinging and propaganda come with the territory –particularly during the presidential election cycles where the outcomes can hinge on offenses that may now, post 2016, be considered trivial. While the term propaganda can be used to describe many of the tactics deployed by team Trump, it is important to look at this phenomenon in a broader context.

The text “Trump” does not just represent the man, but it connotes, to many, an actual brand. The Trump businesses and the brand signify fantasies of luxury and success. Yet, there is a very distinct stigma that is contrived and manipulated to propel the Trump brand to form a more meaningful connection to the broad demographic referred to as the 99 percent.  It is precisely this myth, which is predicated on the selling of the American dream -which is used to drive the Trump empire. The billionaire has monetized on the hope that a meritocracy exists for anyone willing to buy his products or services, while he somehow serves as the poster-child for the self-made man –even though he was born into a life of privilege. In fact, it is estimated that he was given as much as $14 million dollars (Washington Post, 2017) from his father, Frederick Trump, to help to safely navigate through the starting stages in business. It is worth mentioning that it is the starting stages of a business where most entrepreneurs struggle or fail. In that, he had little cause to worry.

So, Trump, as a brand, was already firmly established as a perception of success. It could be argued that his role on The Apprentice, a show that he co-produced, had the effect of priming the nation to view him as being supremely competent and capable to lead. This is particularly interesting because this type of preparation could be viewed as content marketing at that time (where there’s no indication that we are being sold to), and, in hindsight, native advertising (where the brand placement is present but isn’t very obvious as being a brand –the brand being “Trump”), as well (Einstein, 2016). In any scenario, Donald Trump was building his brand. It would be these grand notions of success, combined with the loudest and most relentless political whispering campaign, which would push the myth and protect the man.

It should be noted that, at the time of this writing, the United States intelligence community was still conducting investigations into the role that Russian cyber interference may have played on affecting and influencing the results of the 2016 presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. While the results of their findings have yet to be determined, federal officials have publicly disclosed that there were several instances where they found significant evidence linking numerous, high-ranking Russian government officials to direct interference against the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. The attacks were perpetrated through cyberspace, a rapidly expanding 21st century battlefield, and they involved computer hackings where the outcome included illegally seized emails and other private information.  Additionally, paid operatives, commonly referred to as trolls, took to the internet in an elaborate and concerted effort to accomplish two objectives: crush Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, and sell Donald Trump to the American people –the results of which would lead to the election of Trump.

According to Natasha Bertstrand in her article, “It Looks like Russia hired internet trolls to pose as pro-Trump Americans,” “troll factories” were being set up by the Kremlin to “spread pro-Trump propaganda on social media.” Berstrand interviewed Adrian Chen, a staff writer for The New Yorker, who spent time in Russia researching their “well paid trolls” (Chen, 2016) and found that an “army” of them established fake conservative social media accounts with the sole purpose of cyberbullying and creating anti-Clinton and pro-Trump echo chambers. In Russia, this type of warfare has a name. It’s known as “dezinformatsiya,” and was used to “drive wedges in the Western community alliances of all sorts, particularly NATO, to sow discord among allies, to weaken the United States in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and thus prepare ground in case the war really occurs,” according to retired KGB Gereral, Oleg Kalugin (Bertrand, 2016).

Chen, who notes that “Russia’s information war might be the biggest trolling operation in history,” recalls an interview with one of the trolls. Chen’s troll confirms that their job was “to weave propaganda seamlessly into what appeared to be the nonpolitical musings of an everyday person” (Bertrand, 2017).

In another article, “How Russia Used Trolls, Cyberattacks and Propaganda to Try to Influence Election,” (Keneally, 2017), ABC News writer, Meghan Keneally, quotes a declassified report mentioning that the “Russian Government-linked actors began openly supporting President-elect Trump’s candidacy in media aimed at English-speaking audiences.” This report was ordered by then President Obama to investigate the charges of Russian interference. The report also goes on to name “Putin’s chief propagandist,” Dmitriy Kiselev, who is quoted as saying that his weekly news magazine program was often used “to cast President-elect Trump as an outsider victimized by a corrupt political establishment and faulty democratic election process” (Keneally, 2017). These are but a few of the examples of a campaign aimed at marketing a candidate with an elaborate network of misinformation.

The stealth nature of this operation bares resemblance to the complete anonymity and social interaction associated with content marketing, yet it also shares a similarity with native advertising in the sense that the medium’s parameters are set or predetermined–in this case, the internet. The combination of the knowledge that the media would perpetuate the political horserace (the act of purposefully manipulating news coverage as to try to keep the two opposing candidates “neck and neck” to the finish line in order to spike ratings) and a dominant troll presence was a bit of something old mixed with something new. They were simultaneously used by the Trump campaign to give him an advantage.

In recent elections, the sensationalism of the horserace gained favor by the mainstream media as the news outlets in the industry abandoned traditional, some would say responsible, news coverage in order to compete with other outlets for viewership. Again, these predictable media reactions would be exploited to the desired effect by team Trump.

We have discussed Trump’s brand and the myth associated with that brand. The final piece that would complete the marketing machine is a slogan. “Make America Great Again” was used so frequently that, when asked, many of Trump’s supporters could not specifically explain what the slogan that they had been repeating, wearing, and hashtagging actually means. How do you know precisely when a country is great and when it is not? Is there any middle ground? Furthermore, when exactly was the historical point of reference when the country was great and what makes it not so great now? What coal-country might find favorable might mean sickness or environmental concerns for others. The fact that the notion of making America great again cannot be easily or systemically quantified, suggests that the draw to such a statement resides in the wanting to return to a time of perceived safety or happiness. Such a return can be described as a type of infantilzation (Barber, 2007) of a people, in this case, Trump supporters.

Trump used his slogan not to look forward, as a lot of politicians tout, but to look backwards. Looking back often has very little to do with progress. Progress is the result of solving or overcoming hardships or obstacles in order to reach a new, more satisfactory equilibrium. This doesn’t happen when you look back. Looking back implies a retreat into a mental security blanket. Freud would argue that this, and the current preoccupation for nostalgia, is indicative of a yearning to return to the protection of the womb or childhood rather than having to face the challenges of adulthood. 

The fact that the slogan was vague was irrelevant to most Trump supporters. What they heard when it was repeated was comforting. It did not represent the “task” challenges that slogans like “Change We Can Believe In,” or “Stronger Together” implies. Both of those sound like an effort has to be made in order to achieve. Make America Great Again forgoes the uncertainty of efforts that may or may not pan out. It implies that the intended outcome is achievable because we were already there, hence it should be an easier return.

The problem is that the slogan itself is also a myth because, as stated earlier, the state of being “great” is not quantifiable. Trump used the slogan as a trigger phrase to gain favor with his supporters and to market his message. He prides himself on being able to deliver the deal, or to sell. In this case, he had to sell himself to the American people, and, if not for the army of trolls and paid networks of cyber influencers that perpetuated fake news while creating a safe-haven for him to do and say just about anything, he would not have emerged victorious. This is how stealth marketing and the overall branding of Trump was used to influence his target market (disenfranchised white America), while being shielded by aggressive foreign trolling. 

While these multiple marketing methods have stunned and surprised us as a nation, and to some extent –the world, dezinformatsiya is not new to Russian politics. Given the results, the campaign to get Trump elected worked wonders to get the unelectable elected, though the externalities and consequences of such results have yet to be determined.



Cited Sources

Barber, Benjamin R., Consumed, Norton and Company, 2007

Bertrand, Natasha, “It looks like Russia hired internet trolls to pose as pro-Trump Americans,”, 2016, July 27th

Einstein, Mara, Black Ops Advertising, Or Books, Counterpoint Press, 2016

Gallup Polls,, 2016, November 17th

Keneally, Meghan, “How Russia Used Trolls, Cyberattacks and Propaganda to Try to Influence Election,” ABC News,, 2017, January 6th

Kessler, Glenn, “Fact Check: How much help did Trump’s father give his son?,” The Washington Post, 2016, September 26th

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