This opinion piece by Alby Anand Kurian was originally published on the Knowledge@Wharton site on Feb 23, 2017
Conflict as a Marketing Tool (CAMT) has its roots not in marketing but in screenplay writing. You will find frameworks for screenplay writing in textbooks on the subject — Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting is generally acknowledged as an authoritative source. Field details how nearly all screenplays can be broadly divided into three sections: setup, conflict and resolution.
“Setup” consists of the introduction of the characters, the stage, the setting, the situation and the various relationships – that is, the background to the entire story. “Conflict” is the backbone of all screenplays; without it, the story becomes a yawn. Whether it’s Romeo and Juliet, The Godfather, a soap opera or even religious texts such as the Bible and the Ramayana, without conflict, the narrative would not come alive. Finally, of course, there’s “resolution” – does it end in tragedy or does all end well?
This three-part structure applies to Romeo and Juliet and Hollywood blockbusters, and we are now going to apply it, in the first instance, to sports as well.
The Screenplay of Sports
In the evolution of an economy, once conditions for survival are in place, you will find that a fair share of the country’s economy is devoted to entertainment — television, cinema and so on. As society further evolves, you tend to find that a fair share of the money is then taken up by sports.
Now, sports are truly wonderful – remember the quote about the Battle of Waterloo being won on the playing fields of Eton? It teaches one fair play; it makes one physically fit, mentally alert and all those marvelous things. All of us learn to admire the natural-born skills of a sportsman, and we admire the technique that he has perfected.
“This three-part structure [of setup, conflict, resolution] applies to Romeo and Juliet and Hollywood blockbusters, and … sports as well.”
But when we look at sports as an industry and we see its evolution today, we see a different dimension to it. It still is about admiring a sportsman’s skill, technique and temperament, but today it must be seen as entertainment. There is a natural resistance in us to think of it as such — sports seem of a higher order than mere “entertainment.” It seems as though we are bringing it down a notch or two — as though it makes it lesser than what we thought it was.
Now, whether this makes it less or not is a different matter — what we are establishing here is what sports is today. Sports is entertainment and should be seen as part of the entertainment industry.
So how do the rules of entertainment, that have evolved over the years, apply to sports?
Let’s take the example of Wimbledon. In the setup phase, there is the game of tennis. It’s a game that has been played for a very long time; it has a long history and tradition to it – it’s probably the most gentlemanly of games – and nowhere as raucous as football. And, of course, Wimbledon is also about the royal box and eating strawberries and cream as much as it is about the sport.
But entertainment needs conflict. Enter tennis stars Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg. Sport in the classical sense should mean that as long as they play great tennis, who plays and who wins is irrelevant. But that is certainly not the case, is it? Enter Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, and one finds that the audience has already taken sides.
So, in a cricket match between India and Pakistan (two countries that have gone to war with each other), it is obvious that interest will run high, even if the battle is now on a playing field and not in a combat zone.
The Indian Premier League was a bit of a question mark, really. Where would the conflict happen, who would be “Us,” who would be “Them?” But the conflict between the different clubs was created and began to take shape, albeit in a friendly way. All credit to the organizers for that – they got the conflict going in just the right way.
Conflict in Business: Apple vs. IBM
No less a person than Apple co-founder Steve Jobs used conflict skillfully to his advantage. As Walter Isaacson was to record in his authorized biography of Jobs, throughout his life and career Steve Jobs represented himself as a warrior against the forces of evil — who, of course, were his rivals in the marketplace.
“Throughout his life and career, Steve Jobs represented himself as a warrior against the forces of evil — his rivals in the marketplace.”
When IBM launched its own personal computer in 1981, Apple placed a newspaper ad that said, “Welcome, IBM. Seriously.” Jobs skillfully positioned Apple against IBM when there were many other companies in the fray. He went so far as to say, “If for some reason we make some giant mistakes and IBM wins, my personal feeling is that we are going to enter sort of a computer Dark Ages for about 20 years.”
It was the same with Microsoft and Bill Gates. The sharp differences in style between the two would exacerbate an acrimonious divide in the digital industry that Jobs played up, again to his advantage. He did the same with Dell, even going so far as to use a giant picture of Michael Dell with a target on his face to motivate his employees.
The Screenplay of the Newsroom
Let us now apply the concept of conflict to a new area — the world of news. One can look at news gathering and dissemination in an idealistic manner — it can then be seen almost as an academic exercise, and perhaps it was so in the early days. It was about gathering information, disseminating that information and, of course, analyzing and dissecting current events in a rational manner.
We are not disparaging the industry in any manner. We are only affirming that the pressure of competing news channels, newspapers and other forms of news media will force the news to become … entertainment. No value judgment is being made either way — we are only putting news into the context that it exists in the present day.
We must accept that even the audience is changing. The viewer has had a rough day – the long commute to work, the attendant tensions, his boss, the clients – all have contributed to his reaching home, dead tired. Even though he might be the last to admit it, when he reaches for the remote and switches on television to watch the news, he is doing so to be entertained.
And thus, the rules of screenplay writing creep into the newsroom. Again, we see the need for setup, conflict and resolution.
The biggest news story of our time is, obviously, anything about Donald Trump; here, of course, you have all the ingredients of a great screenplay. Donald Trump pits himself as the lone wolf with the entire Washington establishment ranged against him; the lone wolf is one who shoots his mouth off at every opportunity. It is a near-perfect formula for a wonderful conflict – wonderful in the sense of the drama that it can create. Television news ratings, and its spike ever since Trump joined the campaign, all too clearly reflect that.
The moment the audience is polarized, this simply becomes the best fodder for the news media ever. The names of the characters could change, and the narrative could change as well. But viewership is always highest when there is a ready-made conflict available. The setup-conflict-resolution formula makes for higher TRPs (or target rating points, an audience metric in advertising) — for news, just as in sports, just as in entertainment.
Politics is Entertainment
It was inevitable, then, that CAMT would find its way into politics. Traditionally, politics followed its own rather amateur systems of marketing, but those days are, of course, well past. One of the early records of professional marketing and advertising experts at work is described in The Selling of the President, in which author Joe McGinniss documents how Richard Nixon was packaged and sold to the American voter.
Since then, marketing in the realm of politics has evolved into both a fine art and a science. It seems to have come to full fruition with President Barack Obama’s campaigns (in 2008, as well as 2012). By then, of course, the Internet had become a major force and Obama’s campaign showed a very incisive grasp of how it could be used to its benefit. In other parts of the world, Prime Minister Modi of India demonstrated a quick and ready understanding of it in 2014 and used it extremely successfully, as well. When marketing had become so sharply professional in politics, it was perhaps inevitable that CAMT would be used in politics, along with all the other tools available.
“Trump brings to bear his experience as a television reality star into politics; conflict works very well on television.”
Conflict in politics can essentially be used in two ways – internally and externally. Within the country, conflict can be used to pit one set of people or one set of communities against another; it can be used to polarize communities, polarize votes and to win elections. An external conflict could be used, as well. Politicians could set up their country, along with a set of countries that ally with it, against another country and its set of allies.
This has been done with great success by Trump. In the Trump campaign, we can see all the dots that we have been pointing to, being joined together with almost textbook perfection. Trump brings to bear his experience as a television reality star into politics; conflict works very well on television, and Trump is a past master of the medium. So, when he came into politics he used CAMT very effectively in two ways. He used conflict initially as a way to arrest and capture, and hold our interest on the television screen, and his entry into politics was, as a consequence, a triumphant television season, with interest levels and viewership level spiking in a very dramatic manner.
Every aggressive, combative, conflict-ridden comment that he makes sets up a furor, and the media, therefore (very ironically), owes its high viewership and readership to Trump’s use of CAMT.
The great success of Trump’s media campaign then led to his success in the election — he used CAMT as a political weapon to unite all his supporters and his voters against his Republican rivals, at first, and then his final Democratic one. (The Trump victory is a complex one and it has multiple causes; it is only being affirmed here that the use of CAMT is one of them.)
In this commentary, do notice that we have scrupulously avoided making any value judgments on the use of CAMT. There may be differing views that we all have on Trump and on the way he has used CAMT to win the election. We only seek to point out that, given his background in television, particularly reality television, he perhaps instinctively was able to understand that conflict would gain him viewership — and that once viewership was secured, conflict could also win him the election.
Since it has proved to be so spectacularly successful, it is now inevitable that CAMT will become a more commonly used tool in politics — CAMT is here to stay. Governments, the media, and the general public would do well to be aware of that. We are certain to see a great deal more of it in the near future.
Alby Anand Kurian is a marketing communications practitioner and theorist whose clients have included Procter & Gamble, Pepsi Foods, Nestle and Unilever. Kurian also teaches in the MBA programs at the University of Bradford in the U.K. and the Grenoble Business School at the Management Development Institute of Singapore. His first book, The Peddler of Soaps, made the India Today bestseller list.