Antony Poole: “Voting has many similarities to consumer decision-making”
The victories of Brexit and Donald Trump have shocked people far more than it should have and it is a real possibility that Marine Le Pen will join them to form the holy trinity of populism. Voting has many similarities to consumer decision-making. In this case, the similarities are especially strong as both campaigns were a triumph of form over substance. The lack of serious policies and plans did not diminish the effect of powerful messages. If politicians facing elections in the near future wish to compete effectively against this, there are some important lessons they can learn from marketing, neuroscience and psychology. I doubt anyone in a position to apply these lessons is listening, but let it be their omission.
Emotional or rational responses?
Let’s first remind ourselves of a lesson from many years of research into how advertising influences perception and decisions. Emotional responses beat rational responses. Please note that I use the word responses and not messages. “Chinese manufacturing has taken away your jobs”. “Eastern European immigrants are collapsing our hospitals”. “We will reinvest the £300 million that we don’t pay to Brussels in our health service”. “We will build a wall that will protect you from drug gangs and rapists”.
These are all rational messages (true or not) that generate emotional responses because they connect with emotional triggers: despair of having lost a job and finding no new opportunities; sense of powerlessness that decisions are made by soul-less bureaucrats in Brussels; fear of being a victim of crime. They are also messages that are cleverly anchored in the context of individuals’ day-to-day life. Even if they are not true, people can imagine that it is true because it fits into existing mental structures, experience and biases.
In fact, our brains do not want to think. The brain has a physiological bias to automated, subconscious routines. This saves energy and attention. So people do not need to be rationally convinced but are quite happy with a license to believe that confirms existing beliefs and feelings (right or wrong). In both the U.S. and the U.K., these beliefs, biases and feelings have been effectively built for many years by sensationalist media such as the Daily Express, Daily Mail, Fox News and Breitbart. Brexit campaigners and Trump were sowing their messages in a carefully ploughed field.
‘You are not the target’
Against this, the campaigns that of “Remain” and Hillary Clinton, seem to have been shockingly unaware of what we know about advertising and how the brain works or shockingly unable to apply any imagination or bravery to their cause. The baseline of both campaigns was twofold. On the one hand, fear of a “leap into the unknown” and, on the other, a broadside of rational arguments about policies and economics.
The fear used by Remainers and Clintonites was an abstract fear of generally bad consequences, not linked to the context of people’s daily lives. Their careful, rational arguments required serious thinking and rational responses (if any response at all). Precisely what many voters (and their brains) do not respond to in any meaningful way. The fundamental flaw behind these mistakes is that both campaigns were essentially talking to themselves and to people like them (perhaps imagining that people should aspire to be like them). In the words of one American voter, in hands of the established parties “hope and change became aloof and lazy”. This lesson is from Marketing 101: you are not the target.
Both campaigns -Clinton and Trump- were essentially talking to themselves and to people like them and to people like them
These two lessons provide a good explanation of people’s predisposition to be more motivated and responsive to the Brexit and Trump campaigns. To understand more clearly why the won, we need to look for “multiplier effects”. There are two that were evident in both votes.
Tapping intro frustration and anger
The first multiplier effect is tapping into frustration and anger. Recent research from EADA Professor Jatinder Singh and colleagues sheds a very interesting light on this aspect. They researched the effect of incidental emotion (i.e. underlying emotional state) on consumers’ ethical judgements. They found that when the incidental emotional state is anger, things happen. Firstly, people’s decisions are less ethical. In other words, their actions are less bound by ethical considerations and respect for accepted norms of behaviour (remember the images of pro-Trump rallies). Secondly, people’s sense of control of the situation is a mediating factor in this process. People who are angry feel more in control of the situation and the outcome of their actions. This is no way objective, it is purely subjective and increases with the moral intensity of the situation.
Many people who voted Brexit or Trump seem sincerely convinced that their vote has the ability to change the status quo for the better, despite much evidence to the contrary
These findings help explain why many people who voted Brexit or Trump seem sincerely convinced that their vote has the ability to change the status quo for the better, despite much evidence to the contrary. It also helps explain why so many people would happily ignore unethical behaviour by the campaigns (untruthfulness, insults, discrimination etc.). The voters were angry, they felt wronged and the ends justify the means.
Experiencing pleasure and pain
The second multiplier effect is related to how the brain processes experiences, specifically experiences that activate strong emotional responses such as pleasure and pain. The mental and physiological responses associated with the experience do not simply occur in the moment of the experience, they occur in anticipation of the event. If we look at research and interviews with people who voted Brexit and Trump, we see that many were motivated by a desire to “stick it to the establishment” (Washington, Brussels, “the elite”). As the election day approached, they were already experiencing the pleasure of that moment in anticipation. Brexiters and Trumpites actually enjoyed voting and were anticipating the pleasure they would feel when dropping that ballot in the box and “sticking it” to their chosen villain.
People who voted Brexit and Trump were motivated by a desire to “stick it to the establishment”
This helps to explain part of the difference between the pre-vote polls and the results. There is always a gap between stated intention and action (voting, purchasing, attending etc.). In this case the gap is amplified because people who are anticipating (and already experiencing) a very real and immediate emotional reward (pleasure) will turn up to vote in higher numbers than those who intend to vote from a sense of responsibility or duty. To put it simply, this is the power of “I want to vote” versus “I should vote”.
The candidates’ credibility
The final lesson refers to the candidates themselves and their credibility. Many lines of research have delved into the influence the source of a message or product has on how the message or product is perceived. This week Nielsen U.S. has published updated research showing how people’s perception of the reputation of a company and vice versa (its corporate behaviour) is tightly linked to their experience with its products and services. We do not have frequent, direct experience of the work with politicians. Our perceptions are therefore mostly formed from other sources, the media playing an important role. Sitting in Barcelona and watching, for example, the BBC Boris Johnson may seem a bit of a clown and more than a little “economical with the truth”. But for many Britons their perception is shaped by his journalism with The Times and The Telegraph and his time as Mayor of London during the Olympics.
Similarly Trump, when “consumed” through CNN or similar is hard to digest for anyone with values and an understanding of what a good businessman is. For tens of millions of American citizens he is the anchor of 14 seasons of The Apprentice, the embodiment of key aspects of what success means to many Americans: fame, money and “telling it straight”.
Donald Trump, by accident or design, also focused heavily on his “tough guy” image -this approach has been used very successfully in marketing
Crucially in Trump’s case he is not seen as being beholden to “the elite” who are the identifiable target to blame for the economic and social pressures that ail so many voters. Donald Trump, by accident or design, also focused heavily on his “tough guy” image. This approach has been used very successfully in marketing by Michael O’Leary, founder of Ryanair. When you want someone to fight your corner and stand up to entrenched interests, you don’t want a polite, friendly soul you would invite over for tea and biscuits with grandma. You want someone who you believe will be mean, hard-edged and show no respect for the accepted way of doing things. Combine this with voters’ reduced ethical barriers due to their anger, and messages that would normally be perceived as negative (even indecent) become a powerful tool for building a winning reputation.
From marketing to politics
How might political parties and organizations competing with populists use these lessons? First, stop playing with abstract fear and responsibility and create a platform that gives people something to vote for rather than against – a compelling vision of a better future. Bernie Sanders summed it up thus: “…Democrats will not retain the White House, will not regain the Senate, will not gain the House and will not be successful in dozens of governor’s races unless we run a campaign which generates excitement and momentum and which produces a huge voter turnout”.
Second, create policies and messages that incite a strong and positive emotional response because they are anchored in tangible and meaningful results for people in the context of their daily lives.
Third, properly estimate voting behaviour by taking into account how people experience the act of voting for different options and how this will affect voter turnout.
Finally, propose candidates who can credibly champion the policies and messages that are chosen.
Easier said than done and even easier to ignore.