Category Archives: Politics

About political communication

No Effects?

Persuasion research is usually not in the spotlight. But it’s easy to see why this study made news. A “meta analysis” summarizing 49 research studies concluded that most messages in political campaigns have little or no impact on voters.  End of story. 

It’s my vocation to understand how and when people change their minds. This requires a sense of both the art and science of engineering consent: a tall order that is never easy.  Persuasion analysis is a business that needs humility. Even so, there is no shortage of serious and not so serious attempts to uncover pathways to attitude and behavior change.  Interest in this subject feeds off of the central roles that advertising, political campaigns, and social action campaigns play in our culture.

Any study of persuasion effects must yield to the general operating principle in communication that context matters; any conclusion about the effectiveness of persuasion must usually come with a lot of case-specific caveats.  Uniformity of effects across forms as different as political canvassing and advertising is not likely.  Given that basic assumption, it came as a complete surprise to see a spate of news reports about a recent study by two young political scientists claiming that a large number of field experiments found no or minimal effects for all kinds of campaign activities we take for granted.  The media at the center of the research included television advertising, person to person canvassing, phone calls and mail. The “meta analysis” summarizing 49 research studies found little or no impact on voters in any of these forms.

The uniformity of null effects was a shock. In the past, studies have suggested a range of different effects for different media: typically, with an edge going to one-on-one meetings with voters. Those of us studying these things have a general understanding of events like the 2008 Obama campaign, where the effects of internet-energized supporters and effective block-by-block canvassing produced a convincing win. Or so we think. Was that a different time?  What has changed? There is no equivocation in the final conclusion of authors Joshua Kalla and David Broockman:

The best estimate for the persuasive effects of campaign contact and advertising--such as mail, phone calls, and canvassing--on Americans' choices in general elections is zero.  Our best guess for online and television advertising is also zero. . ."1

To be sure, few persuasion researchers find evidence for widespread effects anywhere. The prevailing view is for only limited effects, typically “post message” percentages of attitude change in the low single digits. Even so, a study that argues against any significant effects seems too bold, too panoramic, and a bit disheartening. It’s somewhat like telling advertisers they are wasting their time and money.

The authors have added some exceptions. If we accept their work, messages do shape responses to ballot initiatives and some primary campaigns.  And in an earlier study they noted that activists for transgender and gay rights did reduce prejudice when they were able to  meet people at their doorstep. Personal stories of travail or unfairness struck home for undecided listeners.

 Our soap-opera politics has perhaps wrung out the possibility of an open mind among those who are still paying attention.

But the broad suggestion of a brick wall of “no effects” in campaigns is stark, and raises a number of questions. Are the studies’ measures of attitude and behavior change too crude to detect shifts? Did being a part of a study effect the results?  This problem–sometimes called the Hawthorne Effect–arises if subjects know they are subjects, and act accordingly.

Then, too, because all of the messages were focused on political campaigns, we may have reached a point where the persistence of attitudes now is much more common than even a decade ago. Our soap-opera politics has perhaps wrung out the possibility of an open mind within those who are paying attention.  In any case, the question of what works remains partly unanswered.

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1“The Miminal Persuasive Effects of Campaign Contact in General Elections: Evidence from 49 Field Experiments,” September 25, 2017, American Political Science Review.

2 “Durably Reducing Transphobia: A field Experiment on Door-to-Door Canvassing,” http://science.sciencemag.org/content/352/6282/220.

Trump’s Strategy Mindset

                            Wikipedia.org

It can be no surprise that a businessman known for turning his name into a brand would also see himself as a master dealmaker. There is perceived power in the flattering perception of being several steps ahead of competitors.  

Anyone struggling to parse the President’s behavior confronts a virtual festival of personality tics. There are the graceless declarations of his “high” intelligence, the pretension of being a master strategist, and the unearned certainty that accompanies the declaration of bogus truths. The endless issuing of false claims is especially stunning (i.e., The U.S. has the highest taxes of any nation; Fredrick Douglas is doing an “amazing job,” etc).  And then there are all of the threatening tweets and serial name-calling.  Vituperation used to be a White House rarity; it was never a presidential form. Presidents  have customarily vented in private and praised in public. Trump’s manufactured feuds not only mark him as an indifferent caretaker of important traditions, but a figure who sees an advantage in the constant name-calling. Its management by division, using presidential rebukes as forms of intimidation.

What is going on with this needy and self-dealing figure?  Why the manufactured hostility?  Have we ever had a leader who was so imprisoned by limited rhetorical skills?

Trump’s kind of bluster seems to be a consequence of both his social awkwardness, and a New York aggressiveness expressed in the language of marketing. Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm described a “marketing personality” as a character type common in individuals captured by a compulsion to sell themselves as a commodity. It follows that they find personal legitimacy in self-referential comments affirming their acceptance and enviable success.

Normally a marketing mentality comes with a degree of affability.  A communication form such as selling is intrinsically “other-directed.” But if a person is not capable of other-direction, and if the “brand” to be preserved is one’s own name, there seems to be a clear motivation to engage in aggressive self-protection. This can take the form of the preemptive bluster that defines Donald Trump.  But it also includes immodest assertions of power, such as using 20-foot letters of his name on the outside of  his buildings. Both the aggression and self-promotion function to assure the doubting that he’s a “player,” and “deal-maker:” the smartest man in the room who can bend anyone to his personal goals.

There is perceived power in the flattering perception of oneself as several steps ahead of competitors. Mastering markets results in a lot of talk about “tactics” and “targets,” “ratings” and “winning.” It persists even if true success alludes him. Indeed, ambiguity over genuine markers of achievement actually helps, since it allows individuals to declare their own “winning” moments.  Investment analysts, traders and marketing “creatives” are often deep into this game, and often able to profit from the mystifications that come with vaguely understood “deals,” “yields,” “growth projections,” and “branding.”

All of this seems to be a particularly masculine need. No set of thought-patterns are fully gender-specific. But it seems clear that there are psychic rewards for performing what seems like the uniquely masculine stance of the consummate strategist. In fact, this male can find it downright fun to watch a set of strategic masterstrokes play out.  We usually need a film like George Roy Hill’s classic The Sting (1973) to pull it off. The story of a “con” played against a ruthless New York mob leader remains a thing of beauty, helped by the fact that male icons Paul Newman and Robert Redford seemed to relish their characters’ guile. In a different way the same anticipation of secret moves sprung the unsuspecting is obvious when listening to a ‘color commentator” rhapsodize about the ideas of an NFL coach.  And while women play poker and frequently win, it’s mostly the men around the table who love to talk about strategy.

Our point is that it’s frequently enough to perform the attitude of a consummate strategist.  And so in Trump we find that specific questions about future presidential actions—a few as consequential as whether the nation will wage nuclear war with North Korea–end up being answered with no more than a half smile and a “we’ll see.” The real estate tycoon relishes these teases. They are meant to remind us that he already has some winning plan. It’s a developer’s prerogative to bet on on implausible promise. Never mind that the building  planned for an empty field will never be built.  An illustrator’s evocative image on nearby sign is reason enough to celebrate. In the same way all the talk of “action” coming from this White House  functionally diverts attention from an administration foundering amidst legislative and diplomatic failures.

The rhetoric of strategy is inherently inflated with bluffs.  But that feature destabilizes when used by a head of government. Governments need transparency and predictability, neither of which are possible if a leader imagines that leadership is a game of moves and countermoves.