Marketing experts and analysts say the billboard is perhaps the most extreme example of politically charged advertising to date, though they disagree on just how effective it would be in helping Dhvani achieve its goal of “creating change in the world.”
The billboard, which debuted Tuesday, went largely unnoticed until Thursday, when a handful of media outlets, including Fox News, reported on it. On Friday morning the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., condemned it on Twitter.
Hey @NYTimes and MSM. Since you had time to thoroughly cover a stupid and tasteless meme seen by 8 people with incredible outrage, I figured you should dedicate the same time and outrage to THIS BILLBOARD IN TIMES SQUARE you hypocrites!— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) October 18, 2019
Unless of course you’re just full of shit. pic.twitter.com/fsEF6ClRuv
The idea began with “a lightning bolt of inspiration” over the summer, Dhvani’s chief executive, Avi Brown, said in an interview Friday with The Post. The billboard shows a Trump impersonator being tied up by model Michal Mesa, a Marine Corps veteran and middle school teacher.
Symbolism figures heavily in the photo, Brown said. The red, white and blue rope was inspired by Wonder Woman’s “truth lasso,” while the looming storm “represents the inevitable and supernatural power of justice.” The impersonator’s face, he said, is pixelated, though that is not obvious in photographs. “We certainly know who it evokes, but it’s not that person,” he said. “It’s more of a metaphorical statement.”
The marketing campaign, which was photographed in August, also includes images of a Trump impersonator being bound, gagged and shushed. In one photo, a model is holding his phone while he is sitting on a golden toilet, pants pulled down around his ankles. In another, a woman is pulling a piece of duct tape over his mouth.
“This is about giving a voice to women,” said Brown, 46, who founded the company last year. “Our intent is for our brand to stand for progressive change in the face of what we perceive to be steps backwards in the evolution of our country.”
The billboard, he said, has increased traffic to the company’s website and social media accounts. Sales are also up, though he declined to offer specifics.
“We’ve never taken a political stand before but frankly, we were fed up,” Brown said, adding he was inspired by Nike’s advertising campaign with Colin Kaepernick — the former NFL quarterback who sparked a movement by his refusal to stand during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and police brutality. “This is just saying: Let’s put a gag order on him. Enough is enough. We support impeachment.”
Brown would not say how much the company paid for the billboard on Seventh Avenue between 47th and 48th streets, in one of the world’s most visible corridors, but advertising experts said a Times Square advertisement could easily cost tens of thousands of dollars per month.
The billboard went up just days after a spoof video of Trump violently stabbing and shooting critics, including journalists and politicians, was shown at his Florida golf resort. The clip sparked a backlash, with many blaming Trump, who often uses inflammatory language against critics. The White House said Monday that the president had not seen the clip, “but based upon everything he has heard, he strongly condemns this video.”
Trump Jr. referred to the incident in his Friday tweet.
“Hey,” he said in a tweet directed at the New York Times and other media outlets, “Since you had time to thoroughly cover a stupid and tasteless meme seen by 8 people with incredible outrage, I figured you should dedicate the same time and outrage to THIS BILLBOARD IN TIMES SQUARE.”
Some of the nation’s largest retailers, including Walmart, Patagonia and Levi Strauss, have become increasingly outspoken during the Trump era, tackling such hot-button issues as gun control, immigration and the environment.
“Executives are feeling pressure to take a stand on social issues,” Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “This is a reflection of how unusual our political situation is at the moment.”
Cappelli, who happened to be in Times Square during a phone interview with The Post, said the billboard did not appear to be attracting any particular attention Friday afternoon — though a few passersby paused to take photos. It is placed high off the ground, among more prominent signs. Another billboard, placed right below Dhvani’s, features pop-art of Trump as an alien.
“People want to do business with companies that stand for something,” said Anthony Johndrow, chief executive of Reputation Economy Advisors, a consultancy in New York. “It makes sense to not just take a stand, but to take a very aggressive stand.”
Brown, for his part, says he is rebranding Dhvani as an “Activ(ist)Wear” company and will donate a portion of its proceeds to nonprofits that provide health care to women. He says the retailer is specifically speaking out against the Trump administration’s Title X “gag rule,” which blocks federal funding for health care clinics that refer patients for abortions. More than 4 million women — many of them low-income and minorities — rely on Title X for health care. (Planned Parenthood, which served 40 percent of Title X patients, withdrew from the federal program earlier this year in protest.)
“We believe in capitalism,” Brown said. “Every dollar we spend is a choice. We vote with our dollars every single day.”
But a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood said the organization did not endorse the billboard and would not accept funds raised by the campaign.
“Our staff members have faced threats and acts of violence for doing their jobs, and many of our patients turn to us as their safe space for care after facing violence in their lives,” Melanie Newman, senior vice president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement. “We do not condone violence or violent imagery against anyone.”
Some critics said the billboard is more publicity stunt than political stand. It’s unclear, they said, how an ad espousing violence against the president had anything to do with sports bras and yoga pants.
“This is an outsized punch, but what’s the real objective here?” said Chris Allieri, a crisis management expert and founder of Mulberry & Astor, a public relations firm in New York. “I just don’t know that this is an effective way to change the world. But at the same time, if their goal is to get exposure and sell leggings, well, maybe it’s worked.”
He likened the “extreme” image to a 2017 photo of Kathy Griffin holding a prop of Trump’s severed head, which led to swift backlash against the comedian.
“At the end of the day, the power is in the ballot box,” Allieri said. “It’s not at the cash register — what we purchase is one very small piece of the puzzle.”