Big Bird, binders, and bayonets: Psychographic marketing and the 2012 presidential election
By Lawrence M. Watkins
Presidential elections have historically been viewed as a sacred sector of American society in which candidates stand upon their beliefs and debate the issues of the day for a chance to become the leader of the free world. Now, campaign spending is in the hundreds of millions of dollars with each side using sophisticated methods to determine the best way to spend the cash. Political candidates use many psychological and marketing tactics to increase their likelihood of victory on Election Day. These tactics are risky for the candidates, because the overuse of them can make the candidates seem untrustworthy and undermine their integrity. However, the ultimate losers are the constituents who are encouraged to have extremely high expectations of candidates, which they cannot deliver on. In the end, if we believe the results of “messaging” over solid platforms, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
The psychology of an election
Individuals like to think that they only use important political issues to determine who they are going to vote for, but over 50 years of psychological research tends to prove otherwise. Books like Thinking, Fast and Slow, Predictably Irrational, and Influence show the plethora of psychological biases that we use to make decisions every day. It is hard to make informed decisions on every issue and political candidates know this. Therefore, they leverage our mental short-cuts to make themselves look more favorable in the eyes of the public even if that favor is not warranted.
A perfect example of this style of campaigning is embodied in Mitt Romney. Handsome, rich, and a former business executive, Romney looks as if he was manufactured instead of born. He conducts himself like a boss, so people automatically assume that he will be good at creating jobs. He takes advantage of the image he projects when marketing himself as President, and the biases in people’s thinking that allow him to exploit that image.
Yet, if you look at his record, Romney has a history of shipping jobs overseas. Massachusetts experienced no jobs growth while he was governor. How can this mental disconnect happen, even for smart and — at least moderately — informed voters?
Here are the top psychological phenomenons that marketers often use to push products — which politicians seem to be becoming.
The halo effect
The halo effect is the tendency for individuals to judge a person’s qualifications based up-on our overall impression of him or her. So, if a person “looks the part,” then people automatically assume that they can “be the part.” This mental short-cut has been examined in a number of realms including politics, business, the military, and education. The halo effect can be very dangerous as it gives underqualified people the potential for more power they can responsibly wield. In the eyes of many, Romney looks exactly like a prototypical president so they assume that he will be a good one, despite the lack of proof.
Fundamental attribution error
Michael Jordan is widely regarded as the best basketball player in the history of the NBA. When he took over as owner and general manager of the Charlotte Bobcats, many people were excited to have the world’s greatest player make personnel decisions. After all, he should know what to look for in a player. It turns out that Jordan’s track record as a sports manager has been one of the worst in the league and can be epitomized by the number one over-all selection of Kwame Brown in 2001 while serving as team president of the Washington Wizards. Most agree that Brown never lived up to the hype.
This same type of error can be seen as Romney’s business resume is touted as evidence of his ability to turn this country around. Success in the business arena does not guarantee success in the government arena — and this is especially true with Romney. First, as a master of private equity, Romney’s responsibility was to maximize shareholder value even at the expense of other stakeholders like employees. If Romney planned a buyout of America, it would look like this.
Black people should be concerned by Romney’s interview with Black Enterprise, in which he admittedly knew very little about the Minority Business Development Agency. So, even if Romney can successfully transfer his business skills to government, that does not mean that Black people will benefit. Our issues might just come out on the expendable end of a cool business calculation that renders us inconsequential.
Mitt Romney’s 47 percent video may have a ring of truth to it — if you fall prey to the psychological pitfall of the confirmation bias. This is the tendency for people to favor in-formation that confirms their beliefs. People display this bias when they remember information selectively or interpret it in a biased way. Although 47 percent may be a stretch, there is a percentage of the population that will vote for Obama no matter what new information is presented to contradict their beliefs, as Romney stated. How-ever, Romney’s video was misleading in two ways.
First, his characterization of the 47 percent was not accurate in many ways (for example, many of the 47 percent pay other forms of taxes). Second, he left out that there is a large portion of society that will also vote for Romney no matter what – based on their biases. Ironically, he was speaking to the target audience who would be most likely to vote for him under any circumstances, because of their unsubstantiated beliefs.
Median voter theorem
On my Facebook page I commonly read terms like “Myth Romney” and “Willard Wonka and the B.S. Factory” to describe Romney. With the reputation of being a flip-flopper extraordinaire, it is hard for many people to ever trust anything that comes out of his mouth. However, flip-flopping has had a long history in politics, as it is inspired by the median voter theorem. This states that the outcome of an election is the outcome preferred by the median voter.
To make it through the gauntlet of the Republican primary, Romney had to commit to policies that appealed to the center of his party. Now, the median that must be appealed to has moved with the addition of new voters from the mainstream for the general election. Now you see Romney desperately trying to move to the new optimal position.
Unwavering individuals like Ron Paul may have the respect of Americans for his steadfastness (despite his other questionable tactics), but are unlikely to win a national election due to not moving to the median — wherever it may be. This might not be great for maintaining your integrity, but it can win votes.
Big data and one-to-one marketing
Last week, statistician Nate Silver was on The Daily Show sharing his insights about the election. Silver mentioned how campaigns are investing a lot of money in understanding the psychographic nature of voters. In business, the use of intense data mining to uncover buyer personas has been around for a couple of decades to increase financial capital, but politicians have entered the game for political capital. The new information uncovered helps candidates determine whether they should spend dollars to sway undecided voters or if they should spend the money mobilizing their base to show up at the polls on Election Day.
Ultimately, the constituents are the losers as more political candidates are running their campaigns like corporate brands doing whatever it takes to increase market share instead of promoting their actual beliefs and values. Currently, many candidates feel the need to use every trick in the book to win the election, even if it means having a harder time governing in the end without a political or moral compass. It is up to us to become wiser voters as we have the most to lose — especially when average-performing elected officials try to transfer their business methods into the public sphere.
Lawrence Watkins is the founder of Great Black Speakers, Great Pro Speakers, and co-founder of Ujamaa Deals, which is a daily deal site that promotes Black-owned businesses. He graduated in 2006 from The University of Louisville with a B.S. in electrical engineering and earned his MBA from Cornell University in 2010. Watkins currently resides in Atlanta. You can follow him on Twitter @lawrencewatkins.