Pop singer Richard Marx hates Trumpism. Will this help or hurt the sale of his new book?
Everyone from Hollywood insiders to mom-and-pop coffee shops is learning they can profit from the nation’s political divide
On his website, singer and songwriter Richard Marx says nothing about politics, when talking up his 14 No. 1 singles, his path to success in pop music and his philanthropy.
He saves the political wrath for Twitter.
On the social-media account that he’s had for 12 years, Marx has been dubbed a “Twitter slayer” for his cutting and sometimes cruel remarks, often aimed at former President Donald Trump and his family. He’s called Trump voters “MAGATs” and morons, and said the tenets of the Republican Party are bigotry and racism.
And he’d also like you to buy his new book, a memoir called “Stories to Tell” that came out this week.
In another nation or a different generation, alienating nearly half the electorate might seem a bad marketing strategy. And yet the No. 1 book on The New York Times’ nonfiction bestseller list last week was “Killing the Mob” by conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly with Martin DuGard. As of Friday, Marx’s book was No. 1 on Amazon in the niche category of “dancer biographies” and hovered around the 1,000 mark in overall hardcover sales, a respectable number for the genre.
Marx’s biting takedowns of Trumpism has alienated some former fans but also won him admirers on Twitter, where he has about 312,000 followers. His public sparring with conservatives such as former “Happy Days” star Scott Baio and Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul have gotten him even more attention. (Paul blamed “C-list celebrities” for encouraging violence against him and his family after a suspicious package was delivered to his home in May.)
In marketing jargon, such free publicity is called “earned media,” which can be invaluable in building a business or selling a book.
And in an age in which partisan affiliation is increasingly part of our personal identity, some businesses are seeking to capitalize on partisanship, as in the Florida coffeeshop called “Conservative Grounds” and Trump supporter Mike Lindell’s MyPillow brand, which remains a major advertiser on conservative media.
Is this a smart strategy or a dangerous one?
Domain of the loudmouths
In videos and interviews, Marx has said he is politically independent and that he is a private person who had never thought of writing a book until he began compiling stories to tell on an acoustic music tour. He told Associated Press writer Mark Kennedy (who described the style of “Stories to Tell” as gentle), “On Twitter, if I’m dealing with an issue that’s racist or bigoted, there’s no holding back. I’m going to blast it. And if someone’s coming after me, I’m going to respond as you can see.”
Marx can be acidic with Twitter users who wrongly say he’s a one-hit wonder (“Which one?” he asks them) and his tweets about politics are often profane. But he can be gentler when engaging with fans, as when one begged him to keep out of politics. He suggested then that people should be able to separate a person’s politics from their art.
On the subject of Trump, however, he doesn’t seem to care who he offends. In Variety magazine in April 2020, Marx called Trump a “despicable piece of trash” with no redeeming qualities. “At this point, I’d rather have Jeffrey Dahmer over Donald Trump,” he said.
He has gained 82,000 Twitter followers since then.
Kathryn, dear. It is me who’s bummed that someone who presents as intelligent as you wouldn’t possess the wisdom to both disagree with someone’s politics and like their artistry. I think Jon Voight is a psychotic traitor, but he’s a wonderful actor. https://t.co/DgzpIvmc8O— Richard Marx (@richardmarx) May 25, 2021
A nation of minicelebrities
David S. Bernstein, publisher of Bombardier Books, the conservative imprint of Post Hill Press, said that Twitter is a “mixed bag” because publishers want authors to have large social-media followings, but people have lost book contracts because of controversial tweets.
“There’s only a limited number of ways to gather Twitter followers. You can post revealing pictures, you can overshare about your life or you can be a political loudmouth,” Bernstein said, adding “I’ve always said to authors, that’s a ridiculous metric. I’m never going to drop an author for what they said on Twitter because I understand the pressure of what it takes to build there.”
That said, there’s no evidence that the number of Twitter followers translates into book sales, Bernstein said, unlike YouTube which has more influence on sales.
“Twitter is a bit of an echo chamber, and it’s not clear that anything that happens on Twitter has any effect in the real world, unless someone loses their job for something they said on Twitter. So it probably won’t matter too much for (Marx) one way or the other. ...
“It really becomes a choice of what you want your brand to be. And I don’t begrudge anybody what they want to do to maintain their branding. In this day and age, when there are a thousand times more celebrities than there have been in any other time in history, how do you differentiate yourself? Everybody’s a minicelebrity in some way.”
Yeah, Robby. I’m the only person on Twitter who’s ever referenced Rand Paul’s neighbor. Must have been me. This was also a day after that traitor made a public showing of refusing the vaccine. Also, you’re a grown man still using “Robby” so I’m not surprised you’re an idiot. https://t.co/WzhstQ3h5h— Richard Marx (@richardmarx) May 25, 2021
In 2017, a Stanford professor made headlines with research that said Americans’ political identity matters more to them than their religion or race.
And, in fact, marketing experts say that values figure into consumer choices, which can help explain why entrepreneurs have tried to capitalize on some conservatives’ dislike of the Starbucks brand. According to reporting by Vox, these businesses include the coffeeshop Conservative Grounds in Largo, Florida, and the Salt Lake City-based Black Rifle Coffee Company, a combat veteran-owned business that sells premium “freedom-filled” coffee to “people who love America,” primarily through mail subscriptions.
In Sarah Steimer’s 2019 analysis of political branding on the American Marketing Association website, Vanitha Swaminathan, a marketing professor and director of the Katz Center for Branding at the University of Pittsburgh, said, “Increasingly, this is going to be an important part of how people define themselves. And because it’s an important part of how people define themselves, companies and brands have no choice but to appeal to that part of identity.”
In an email, she noted that brands are increasingly comfortable with taking positions on controversial topics. and that “to the extent that the topic appeals in a positive way to your existing fans/customers you will likely benefit from their increased engagement towards your brand.”
“So each brand should identify a topic that is consistent with the values and opinions of their core customers,” Swaminathan said.
While Americans weary of political strife may wish for politics to stay out of their shopping, partisan differentiation may, in fact, help to sell coffee or books in a crowded marketplace, particularly if the politics being promoted is liberal.
In a small study reported on last year in Harvard Business Review, researchers asked managers and MBA students if they would buy a product from, or work for, a hypothetical company that was promoting either liberal or conservative values.
Respondents who were told the company was promoting conservative values viewed it in a worse light, while they were more likely to be neutral about companies promoting liberal values. But the researchers concluded, “Whether or not this drives consumer’s behavior in a serious way is yet to be seen,” noting that Chick-fil-A, which is seen as a business that promotes conservatives values, is popular on the campus of George Washington University, “one of the most politically active universities in the country.”
With regard to books, it takes just 10,000 to 15,000 book sales in one week to crack The New York Times bestseller list, said Bernstein, of Bombardier Books. That means only 4% of Marx’s Twitter followers would have to buy a book to land there.
“In this polarized age, there are people who will purchase a product from you just because of your political stance. There may be more people who get turned off by your political stance. We have such tribalism, and the tribalism really does show up in book sales,” Bernstein said. “It’s a competitive world out there. You gotta do what you gotta do.”