Zombies helped Trump get elected. Zombies? That’s right. “It’s Official: the Walking Dead Helped Elect Trump,” proclaims The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw. And no, I’m not talking massive undead voter fraud.

Anyone who has seen a zombie film knows one thing: zombies, be they shamblers or runners, don’t vote. Originating in Haitian Voodoo and folklore and at least in part symbolizing slavery and colonial oppression, they were absorbed into Western culture where they have come to symbolize a great variety of cultural angst: possession, race relations, mindless consumerism, and, in the new millennium, disasters, terrorism, immigration, and the other. Daniel W. Drezner writes, “Surfing the cultural zeitgeist, a number of actors have adopted the zombie trope to advance their own political message. There are clear advantages in using the living dead as a pop culture hook for promoting political and policy ideas.”

So how did zombies and The Walking Dead help Trump? In an exclusive Forbes interview with Jared Kushner, the young real estate and media mogul (and Trump’s son-in-law) discussed his crucial, secretive, and brilliant masterminding of the President-elect’s campaign. The secret to Kushner’s success? Strategy. Kushner approached the campaign in the way a Silicon Valley entrepreneur might. “I called some of my friends from Silicon Valley, some of the best digital marketers in the world, and asked how you scale this stuff,” Kushner says. “They gave me their subcontractors.”

He then used services such as Cambridge Analytica and data analysis tools such as Deep Root to identify which of Trump’s themes of change, trade, or immigration resonated with which voters and which TV shows these voting blocks preferred. When he wanted to deploy anti-immigration ads, he ran them next to The Walking Dead, a show about zombies.

True, Trump’s campaign also benefited from a number of events, including F.B.I. director Comey’s last minute letter to Congress and a hacking and misinformation campaign. The latter was almost certainly Russian-orchestrated agitprop updated for the social media age. Depending on who you ask, these may or may not have played much of a role in the election. Paul Krugman writes that support from the largely white working class only got Trump “within striking distance of the White House — or, more precisely, Comey-and-Putin range.” Whether you agree with Krugman or not, it’s clear that it was Jared Kushner’s brilliantly effective secret data-driven strategy that helped Trump’s outspent — but certainly not outgunned — campaign earn that support. To use a military analogy, Kuschner’s use of geoanalytics, voter data, and popular culture preferences amounts to using precision guided marketing munitions to carry out surgical strikes on public opinion. Let’s call it surgical marketing strikes. It’s part of what retail marketers call microtargeting — the use of big data to deliver personalized (at least partially so) messages to individuals and specific segments of the population. Jared Kushner didn’t invent these techniques, but he deployed them extremely effectively, using data to target very specific groups in an innovative manner, and maximize what marketers refer to as ROI: return on investment.

Anyone interested in changing the world should pay special attention to this strategy.

Crucially, even without the use of sophisticated and expensive data analysis tools and marketing consultants, groups seeking to change public opinion on anything from climate change to medical insurance can find and utilize the kind of data that Kushner used in his campaign. For example, last year, E-Score®, a market research firm, published the results of a poll listing the top ten television shows of people identifying as Democrats and Republicans. These lists generated a good deal of interest and were republished on a number of popular culture websites, such as IO9.

According to the lists, The Walking Dead was more popular with Republicans, ranked in second place, while it came in sixth with Democrats. This might be surprising, given the diverse nature of the rag-tag band of survivors, but a major theme of the show is also about the fear of strangers, the other, the outsider. Add guns, rugged individualism, and the absence of even the ultra-minimal state beloved of libertarian political philosopher Robert Nozick and the slight preference for the show by Republicans and Trump voters is more understandable.

More recently, in ‘Duck Dynasty’ vs. ‘The Modern Family’: 50 Maps of the US Cultural Divide, the New York Times published a fascinating series of maps analyzing the cultural bubbles — urban, rural, and what they identify as the “extended Black Belt” — that Americans live in, as demonstrated by taste in television series and mapped by zip code. In a shining example of both journalism and demographic research, Josh Kratz writes, “If you had to guess how strongly a place supported Donald J. Trump in the election, would you rather know how popular ‘Duck Dynasty’ is there, or how George W. Bush did there in 2000? It turns out the relationship with the TV show is stronger.”

Let’s say you are someone advocating, say, science policy and strategies for developing a resilient future in the face of climate change. Perhaps you work with a political action group or other non-profit organization. Your strategic marketing and communications funds are almost certainly limited. And that means getting your voice outside the echo chamber of preaching to the choir. You want to reach people who don’t believe climate change is real or caused by human actions or much of a threat if it is, and those that are undecided. These days, marketing scholars call this social marketing — because propaganda is what bad guys do.

In this case, then the kind of surgical strike marketing that social media like Facebook ad campaigns allows may be very useful, but the message itself needs to be appropriately tailored. The authors of “Communication and Marketing as Climate Change-Intervention Assets” stress the importance of how a message is framed as well as identifying the thought leaders and community opinion leaders that need to be convinced and mobilized. This too can be done with social media analytics. It’s well documented that Republicans, including the Religious Right, tend not to perceive climate change a major threat. Not all Trump voters are Republicans, but the majority of Republicans voted for Trump.

Want to convince Trump voters that climate change is both real and a major threat? With limited money for traditional media spots, an ad taken out in San Francisco, for example, is not going to get much ROI.

Who is just about the opposite of latte-sipping, Prius-driving, Modern Family-watching San Franciscans? A&E’s Duck Dynasty viewers, that’s who. According to the New York Times, Duck Dynasty is “the prototypical example of a show that is most popular in rural areas. The correlation between fandom and the percentage of people who voted for Mr. Trump was higher for Duck Dynasty than it was for any other show.”

How do you tailor a message to people who like a reality show about bearded makers of hunting gear with Christian values? Framing climate change within the stewardship ethic of Genesis has been suggested. A Louisiana shrimp farmer talking about the loss of critical wetlands due to rising sea levels might be a good option as well. Fans of the Duck Commander are unlikely to be receptive to an EPA report that says the same thing.

The American public may be divided, but with the right messaging, and the right framing, those divisions may just be a means to bring us together. Jared Kushner didn’t invent microtargeting or the use of advanced data analysis to identify and target demographic segments. But Jared Kushner’s strategic entrepreneurial attitude and surgical deployment of new digital analytics and messaging took a low-budget campaign on to win the White House, with or without the Russian’s help. That’s a lesson that anyone else wanting to change the world would do well to heed.

Featured image courtesy of Flickr.

  • Morgan Sterling

    Comment by Morgan Sterling Saletta (the author of above article).

    It should be noted that in the time after this was written- there have been numerous suggestions that Cambridge Analytica might have been working with data hacked from voter registration systems by Russian Hackers. Steve Bannon’s role as a VP for Cambridge Analytica until 2016 and Jared Kushner’s conversations with Russian ambassadors and banks have been raised in this regard and Cambridge Analytica’s role in the Brexit campaign has also come under suspicion. It’s important to note that much of this is little more than hear-say and (as yet) unsubstantiated allegations in the political pundit blogosphere. However, if it does turn out that hacked voter data was used to micro-target voters with fake-news (i.e. propaganda) with the help (direct or otherwise) of state sponsored Russian hacking, then Jared Kushner’s campaign becomes odiously treacherous, as opposed to brilliant.