What we can learn from the Trump University’s sales scripts

While much coverage of the Trump University cases has justifiably focused on allegations of fraud, the recently-released Trump University sales scripts also offer insight into Trump’s methods for selling himself.

For example, the scripts admonish Trump salespeople “You don’t sell products, benefits or solutions—you sell feelings. . . .When we make any decision, including the ‘buy’ decision, we do so by an emotional process.”  Does that explain why we hear so little from Trump on the issues, and so much of, well, feelings?

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Similarly, if you listen to how Trump responds to questions, you may see parallels to the script’s instructions for answering questions about Trump University’s success rate:

"If you went to Harvard or Berkeley and asked them the success rate of their graduates, how do you think they would answer that? Their answer is the same as ours. We give every student the knowledge and tools to go out there and be successful. . . . every graduate doesn't make the same amount of money. . . . Their number one problem is procrastination and excuses. So the success rate is based off of one variable - YOU! . . . . Average people get to a defining moment in life and think about it until it is too late. You didn't make all these decisions to be here this weekend to be average. So come on, let's get you a Mentor . . . ."

Never mind that information about the outcomes of many schools, including Harvard and Berkeley, is available on the web. Sales staff who followed the script did not even begin to answer the consumer’s question.  But they may have managed to make listeners feel better about themselves by putting down the unidentified others—those average people!--who procrastinate and make excuses.  Predatory lender scripts  show a similar pattern of refusal to answer questions and redirection. 

Another answer from the script recalls the clamor of some Trump supporters for change in the form of a political outsider, as well as Trump’s promises of greatness.  In response to a question about what the school’s guarantee is, the script calls for this:

[H]ere's my first guarantee: don't make any changes in your life, and you will be in the exact same place you are in right now one year from today. . . . Here's another guarantee, we . . . give the absolute best strategies and systems to generate massive cash flow. You will have . . . as much success as you desire. . . . Let's get you a Mentor . . . .

Selling a product and selling a candidate differ in one key respect.  Many laws protect consumers.  Those laws are the basis for the California class actions and the New York State Attorney General’s case against Trump University. Voters, however, lack the protections consumers have.  Our country assumes that the same people who need protection in their role as consumers can see through frauds in their role as voters. 

But can they?  Bernie Madoff didn’t think people could detect a fraud.  Indeed, years ago, one of my relatives succumbed to a get-rich-quick scheme that promised to make her life great, involving the sale of soap.  It turned out, though, that she had chased a dream that could not be caught.  While the company’s leaders may have become rich—one bragged of driving a pink Rolls Royce—my relative squandered resources she could ill afford to lose.

Unfortunately, the boasts about the pink Rolls also find echoes in the Trump script command to say: “Don’t buy a Kia when you can have a Bentley.”   And “Use yourself as often as possible, example: If I didn’t have access to Trump University . . . I . . . would be in a much lower income bracket [and] Wouldn’t have been able to fulfill my lifelong dreams.” 

While the law ultimately took its course against the folks that snookered my relative, it was too late for her.   Meanwhile, the cases against Trump University, filed years ago, still await trial.  The staff who read the Trump University playbooks learned about the hard sell, but the courts have yet to decide that their customers learned what was promised.

My relative ended up with a garage full of soap rather than a Rolls.  That was the price she paid for her credulity.   We can only hope that Americans who trust candidates don’t have their dreams washed away too.


Jeff Sovern is a professor of law at St. John's University School of Law and a co-coordinator of the Consumer Law and Policy Blog.