On page 96 of The Kim Kardashian Principle: Why Shameless Sells (and How to Do It Right), a New York Times bestseller released last month by St. Martin’s Press, oft-cited celebrity branding expert Jeetendr Sehdev wonders why the Dalai Lama hasn’t taken more extreme measures to advocate for the Tibetan people. “What if the international icon set himself on fire in front of the White House?” Sehdev suggests. “It would, at least, prove more newsworthy than celebrating his eightieth birthday at the Glastonbury Festival with Lionel Richie.”
He argues that the Dalai Lama ought to take a leadership lesson from Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who was recently accused of allowing hazardous work conditions at one of the company’s factories. “Musk feels his fear every day and makes sure his employees feel it too,” Sehdev writes, confoundingly. “Most interestingly, he defies the business school cliche of the ‘good’ leader, yet he remains loved by the very same employees he terrifies.” Does he?
The Kim Kardashian Principle is a marketing manual-slash-memoir stuffed with self-aggrandizing personal anecdotes and objectionable framing (“the [Charlie Hebdo] news reports from Paris hit me as if I had been shot”); it reads kind of like a computer virus crossed with the inner monologue of Sonja Morgan. Although I kept meaning to put it down and never, ever pick it up again, it continually struck me as a perfect, deranged artifact of the Trump age. Money is speech, corporate interests run the executive branch and our president is an image-obsessed swindler exclusively interested in attention-getting—it’s only natural, in times like these, that we’d get a book that frames success as a virtue predicated on ruthless self-interest and overexposure.
“After all, in a world where a big booty can break the Internet and the president is a reality TV star, self-obsession is a must-have,” the hardcover’s inside flap chirps alarmingly.
The book initially caught my eye when I noticed that Sehdev, who has provided a number of quotes to mainstream outlets over the years urging diversity in film, does something unusual for a figure who isn’t (at least publicly) conservative: he doesn’t frame Trump’s win as a sign that something has gone horribly wrong in our society, but rather as a blueprint for success that any rational success-seeker should follow. Success is success, he appears to assert, no matter how it’s achieved, how long it lasts, or whether we get nuked by North Korea as a direct result.
The “Kim Kardashian Principle,” or “KKP,” as Sehdev refers to it, is based on something the author calls, distressingly, “the six principles of SELFIE”—surprise, expose, lead, flaws, intimate, and execute. The essential concept within this ragtag mix of nouns and verbs seems to be that a brand/idea/celebrity should be bold, totally unfiltered, unapologetic and uncompromising (“Contrary to what JFK would have us believe, today compromise is cowardice”). You shouldn’t obfuscate, he instructs, but at the same time, somehow, feel free to be contradictory. The “not here to make friends” mantra—which was spawned in reality television and eventually made its way into the White House—is now a bona fide marketing strategy.
This book is ostensibly about the branding power of warm qualities like “authenticity,” “transparency,” and “intimacy,” but manages to bleach these concepts of meaning, resting on the immediately flawed premise that Kim Kardashian—a woman who is unimaginably famous for being “herself,” but also has a resculpted hairline and stars in a fake reality show—perfectly embodies those qualities. That is not to say that there is no marketing lesson in Kardashian’s successful overexposure, and following her sister’s humiliating failure of a Pepsi commercial, it’s also clear that brands can’t survive on an obviously co-opted identity or an offensively inoffensive point of view. Sehdev isn’t wrong about audiences craving boldness and individuality, but while a kind of “intimacy” might be achievable in the social media age, brands can’t be totally authentic, or “real,” or even “shameless,” because they’re brands. Their purpose is to make money.
This tension undermines the entire book, which veers wildly between the kind of standard corporate self-empowerment advice that might accompany a photo of the “Fearless Girl” and an absolutely spectacular display of mercenary amorality; the winking suggestion that the Dalai Lama self-immolate for clicks isn’t even necessarily the most shocking thing in here. (This might be, though: “Even our ultra-villains, like ISIS’s beheading video star Jihadi John or Vladimir Putin, know how to stage a scene, play to the cameras, and excite their audiences. So, what does this mean for those who want to create shareable content and culture-shifting business ideas?”)
In a chapter on leadership, Sehdev describes “extremists” as “the innovators, the ones with the balls to put their ideas out there and the strength to withstand the tide of public opinion.” After hearing a Hollywood studio executive use a racist slur, Sehdev describes himself as having been initially shocked—but then again, “this wasn’t Downton Abbey, it was Hollywood.”
Rather than demonize others for their bigotry, I started thinking about the power of an extreme perspective to express yourself and break through—not in the ‘right’ way, as determined by others’ standards, but in your way, by your standards.
Sehdev’s use of shiny marketing-speak to dress up ugly ideas almost reads as parody—“hate is a form of engagement” is an actual phrase in this book. The implication that racism is fine if it gets you attention seems to directly conflict with his other messages (although it jibes conveniently with his earlier decree that it’s okay to make contradictory statements), where Sehdev, who was raised in the UK to Indian-born parents, expounds on the benefits of racial diversity and critiques Zayn Malik for downplaying his Muslim background. This radical absence of ethical boundaries speaks to the author’s central, distinctly Trumpian principle: winning is the only thing that matters, and there are a number of different avenues, or “forms of engagement,” by which one might achieve this. It doesn’t matter which avenue you take.
Sehdev, naturally, has an unusual and not particularly fact-based take on our 45th president. He categorizes Donald Trump as one of many “polarizing personalities” who “know exactly what they want, when they want it, how they like it, and most importantly they are not afraid to show it.” Trump, according to Sehdev, “declares his beliefs loud and proud, political correctness be damned.” Curiously, the author counts Trump, a man who has repeatedly sent outlines of his fingers in gold sharpie with the note “See, not so short!” to the editor of Vanity Fair, among an elite cadre of successful individuals who “couldn’t care less about what their haters say.”
Rather than supporting his thesis, Sehdev’s examples demonstrate its sharp limitations. Trump, after all, is an ideologically confused moron who only managed to package himself as “authentic” after spending 10 years on The Apprentice confusing Americans’ understanding of the concept. Kim Kardashian, in addition to her questionable commitment to authenticity, is not quite as shameless as the book’s title might suggest.
In further service of his thesis, the author names Thinx Underwear—whose CEO Miki Agrawal was accused of sexual harassment and “fostering an environment of fear” around the same time this book was published—as an example of a company that successfully utilized “the power of surprise” (although one could argue that it certainly was surprising to hear that Thinx wasn’t practicing the feminist liberation it loudly preached). “Embracing” the brand’s “deviance” worked when it was covering the subway in ads about periods, but not so much when Agrawal allegedly fat-shamed her employees.
Sehdev also cites famous YouTubers, particularly PewDiePie, as beneficiaries of the exploding market for #unfiltered celebrities; unfortunately, in February PewDiePie lost several partnerships and his space on YouTube’s “Google Preferred” advertising program after making a bunch of jokes about killing Jews. “The YouTube platform plainly incentivizes such attention-grabbing behavior, right up until the point that it becomes a liability to its operators or their other partners,” the New York Times’ John Herrman wrote of the YouTuber’s fall from grace. And while Sehdev is right that YouTubers are often perceived as authentic, it’s dubious to suggest that they actually are; after all, a lot of them have a habit of flinging insults and accusations at each other in exchange for clicks and mentions.
Sehdev makes a number of other points that don’t track—for one, that “resting bitch face,” literally a face at rest, doesn’t get you anywhere because it’s somehow inauthentic; he also tries to make the argument that Jodie Foster’s fear of being outed as a lesbian led her to “accomplish great things,” even though, according to his own thesis, her inauthenticity should have ruined her. He refers to the women executed during the Salem witch trials as “nothing more than mouthy and opinionated women—the Kim Kardashians and Grace Helbigs of their day,” a bold flourish of historical revisionism. He asserts that Unilever’s “contradiction” in owning both Axe and Dove, two totally ideologically opposed brands, “is a flaw, but a powerful one, allowing for a more honest, open, and authentic connection with audiences”; a Unilever executive, meanwhile, provides enthusiastic praise for the book on its back cover.
There’s certainly a magnetic power in attributes like intimacy and authenticity, but really, what Sehdev actually seems to be advocating is selling the appearance of those qualities to people who don’t know any better, while at the same time cultivating a riskily inflated air of outrageousness—which is much closer to what Donald Trump actually did. Sehdev himself seems to have followed this strategy; I probably wouldn’t be writing about his book at all if he hadn’t suggested taking marketing lessons from Jihadi John. The Kim Kardashian Principle is filled with breathy anonymous celebrity anecdotes and absurd claims (“I’m the only person who’s talking about celebrities in the media with some level of rigor and intelligence”), and while his bio says he’s a marketing professor at the University of Southern California, USC told Jezebel that Sehdev hasn’t worked there since 2014, and was an adjunct.
(A representative from St. Martin’s Press confirmed his adjunct status and told Jezebel that while Sehdev isn’t currently teaching due to scheduling conflicts, he plans to do so in the future.)
Trump may have won the 2016 election, but as the 100-day mark approaches, the goals of his administration remain completely incoherent. Sehdev’s road map to fame and fortune leads us into a similar trap of vicious, comprehensive meaninglessness, topped off by this crucial point: “If the Dalai Lama took a page out of Elon Musk’s book and realized that the need to befriend Beyoncé was indeed his truth, he wouldn’t need the PR spin of peace.”