The Marketing Lesson Behind ‘Dewey Defeats Truman’

Feb 19, 2019

No one is celebrating Thomas E. Dewey today. The 1948 Republican presidential candidate’s face won’t be on any Presidents Day mattress blowout sale flyers. Dewey was never president.

But according to about 150,000 copies of the Chicago Tribune published on Nov. 3, 1948, he defeated incumbent president Harry S. Truman to become the 34th president of the United States.

The newspaper’s error and its bold “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline on election day has become the stuff of journalism legend. Copies of the paper sell for upwards of $2,000. The incident is the bar against which all other media misfires are measured.

The power of a photograph

Its staying power is a lesson in the power a photograph has to shape a story. The headline never would have had the same lasting effect without the iconic photo of a grinning, triumphant President Truman holding up a copy of the paper.

The marketing lesson — survey early, survey often

But the real takeaway for marketers lies in what made the Chicago Tribune make the wrong call in the first place.Thanks to a printers strike, the Tribune had to go to press earlier than other papers, but it was far from the only publication that figured Dewey was a shoe-in. A few days earlier, LIFE magazine ran a photo of Dewey on a boat with the caption “The next President travels by ferry boat over the broad waters of San Francisco Bay.”

Outlets nationwide were relying on faulty polling data to predict a Dewey victory. Gallup pollsters didn’t conduct any polling in the last two weeks of the election. “Elections are decided by Labor Day” was the accepted truism.

Those polls were also based on quota sampling. The polling sample’s ratio of men, women, voters over 40, voters under 40, etc., was designed to mimic an accurate picture of the nation at large.

That tactic demanded some big assumptions in the audience survey and what compelled people to take action. To make matters worse, Gallup assumed those actions wouldn’t change in the weeks leading up to the election.

Gallup axed both polling practices after 1948, though that certainly wasn’t the end of botched polling leading up to election night.

Long story short: Audiences change — and those changes are an opportunity. Going too long between check-ins and assuming you know what makes your customers tick can set your brand up for a major “Dewey Defeats Truman” moment.

This article also appeared in our weekly newsletter, Long Story Short. It was written by Alex Irwin.

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