To sway Trump on trade, businesses try an ad blitz on cable TV

When President Donald Trump tunes into “Fox & Friends” on Monday morning, he may see a familiar face delivering a gentle warning that tariffs are “B-A-D economics.” 

In a last-ditch attempt to persuade Trump to back away from his trade approach, the National Retail Federation has enlisted Ben Stein, the comedic economist famous for his role in the 1980s film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” to offer Trump economic advice via advertisements that will air on the president’s favorite TV network. 

“There’s really an audience of one in this decision-making,” said David French, chief lobbyist of the National Retail Federation, which represents the retail industry. “For the president, this will seem like a winning strategy for a long time until it isn’t.” 

Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs and his threat of levies on Chinese goods have sparked concern across industries, including agriculture, automobiles and retailers, which worry they will be caught on the losing end of a trade war. Businesses say Trump’s approach risks derailing America’s strong run of economic growth with a self-inflicted mistake on trade, one that will ultimately cause harm to consumers and the economy. 

They are hoping to pressure Trump at a key moment. U.S. companies will have a chance to air their concerns about the proposed tariffs on Chinese goods during three days of hearings that the U.S. trade representative is holding beginning on Tuesday. Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, China’s top economic official, is also expected to visit Washington — possibly as early as this week — for more trade talks with top administration officials. And the White House is in the midst of trying to reach a deal with Canada and Mexico to revise the North American Free Trade Agreement, a deal that has become integral to many U.S. industries. 

In comments at the White House on Friday, Trump reiterated that NAFTA has been a “terrible deal” and said that Canada and Mexico were disappointed to be losing the “golden goose” that has been the United States. Republicans lawmakers have said that the framework of a deal needs to be revealed this month if Congress is going to vote to approve it this year, putting pressure on the administration to either agree to a revised pact or follow through with Trump’s threat to abandon the 1994 agreement. 

Whether an ad campaign can sway Trump on tariffs remains to be seen but there is evidence that it has had some effect in the past. A little more than a year ago, retailers took to the airwaves to kill a type of broad tax on imported goods, known as the border adjustment tax, that Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis. and the House speaker, was pitching as a centerpiece of the Republican tax plan. The National Retail Federation blanketed television networks with catchy commercials that claimed the proposed import tax would hit consumers in their wallets. 

Eventually Trump and Republican leaders in Congress cooled to the idea and it was shelved. 

The retail industry hopes to persuade Trump by once again talking about the effect on consumers’ wallets. The group projects that Trump’s tariffs could cause the price of Chinese-made televisions to rise by nearly 25 percent and predicts that if China retaliates with punitive measures of its own it could lead to thousands of lost jobs in states won by Trump in the 2016 election. 

Because so much of the decision-making power on trade is concentrated in the White House, lobbyists are working to get Trump’s attention directly rather than canvassing congressional committees. The six-figure purchase will place the commercial on “Fox & Friends,” the Fox News morning show that Trump often watches and quotes on Twitter. It will also be featured on the comedy show “Roseanne,” which seeks to appeal to Trump voters, and on “Saturday Night Live,” which regularly mocks the president with vicious impersonations by Alec Baldwin. 

“You have a president, it’s no secret, who likes to watch television,” said Evan Tracey, senior vice president of National Media Research, Planning & Placement, a Republican media firm, who noted that advertisers used to try to reach President Barack Obama, a sports fan, on ESPN. “From an advertising standpoint, you always want to sort of go where the ducks are.”  

He added: “If you want to get your message in front of President Trump, the strategy to go to cable news is not a bad one.” 

Retailers are not the only ones seeking to soften Trump’s trade instincts. In recent weeks, the manufacturing, solar and farming lobbyists have unveiled their own advertising campaigns to push back against tariffs. 

“I’m supportive of the Trump administration, but I have a lot of concerns about current actions that have been taken on trade and tariffs,” said Brent Bible, an Indiana soybean farmer in a national television ad produced by Farmers for Free Trade. “The fact that China is our number one soybean customer makes us very vulnerable.” 

That ad appeared on Fox, CNN, and MSNBC in Washington and in Florida, where Trump often spends weekends at his Mar-a-Lago golf resort.  

French, of the retail industry group, said that they chose to recruit Stein advertisement because his part in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” resonates with a broad demographic. They shot the 30-second clip in early April and have been waiting to deploy it at a time when the prospect of a trade war reaches an inflection point. 

While trade policy can be abstract, a bespectacled Stein, standing before a chalkboard with a lesson on “Smoot-Hawley,” the 1930 protectionist tariffs that helped fuel the Great Depression, attempts to make the costs of levies as simple as possible. 

“Tariffs raise taxes on hardworking Americans,” he said his notorious monotone. “It’s not complicated.”

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