We are in the thick of the 2016 presidential primaries, and you are likely hearing from candidates every time you turn on your TV or radio, or go online. The candidates are eager to set themselves apart in your mind and tell you what sort of president they would be. Essentially, they are fighting to brand themselves.

Beside possible election fatigue, what is the impact of all this branding? What do we think of the candidates, and what is the effect of their rhetoric, especially when it feels inflammatory and targeted against certain communities?

Take a listen to our latest podcast to hear what Kellogg professors have to say on the topic.

Podcast transcript

[music prelude]

Emily STONE: The 2016 presidential campaign is in full swing. Even if you’re not a political junkie, it’s pretty hard to tune out the candidates right now. They’re all fighting to tell you who they are and what they stand for. Like any product, presidential candidates are trying to brand themselves.

Hilary CLINTON: I am a real person, with all the pluses and minuses.

Ted CRUZ: I’m a Christian first. I’m an American second. I’m a conservative third. And I’m a Republican fourth.

Bernie SANDERS: I’m the only candidate up here, of the many candidates, who has no super PAC.

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STONE: Hello, and welcome to Insight In Person, a monthly podcast produced by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. I’m your host, Emily Stone.

This month, we talk with Kellogg professors about what we can learn from studying candidate brands. This includes the impact of the rhetoric they use to establish those brands. So stay with us.

[music interlude]

Let’s start with arguably the most prominent voice in the 2016 campaign.

TRUMP: When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

STONE: That was, of course, Donald Trump. Trump has created a very clear brand for himself. To his supporters, he’s a “straight-shooter” who “says what he thinks.” This often translates into statements about minorities that are offensive to many people. So what’s the impact of this rhetoric on listeners, particularly on the people he’s describing in degrading terms?

Nour Kteily is an assistant professor of management and organizations at Kellogg. He’s been studying this question.

NOUR KTEILY: I think that the rhetoric that Donald Trump has been espousing has been contributing to a climate in which these types of dehumanizing attitudes have become more normative, more acceptable, more prevalent—and this can have, we think, important consequences.

STONE: This idea of “dehumanizing” is at the core of Kteily’s recent research. First, let’s take a step back and look at how his research began.

Kteily and his collaborators were interested in whether people blatantly dehumanize other groups. By that he means, does one group of people, say an ethnic group or nationality, think of another group as “animals,” or do they label them with animal-like qualities, such as lacking basic human impulse control.

To measure levels of dehumanization, the researchers used the ubiquitous “Ascent of Man” graphic. You’ve seen it.

KTEILY: People think of it as a chimpanzee, but it’s more like a quadrupedal human ancestor, slowly morphing into what could be thought of as a modern full-day human. And we simply asked people how evolved they perceived the average member of a number of different groups to be.

STONE: Research participants in several different countries were given this image with a slider underneath. They were asked to move the slider across the image to the point that they thought best represented how evolved a specific group is. The researchers then converted the slider positions into numbers, from 0—“not at all evolved”—to 100—“fully evolved.”

KTEILY: We were mindful of the fact that it is reasonably offensive. It’s certainly blatant, it’s outright, it’s extreme, it’s clear. When we decided to go ahead with its use, many of our colleagues thought, “There’s no way you’re going to get any variation on this scale. Everyone is going to say 100 to each group.”

STONE: Their colleagues were very wrong.

KTEILY: We found amongst Israeli and Palestinians, for example, that they rate one another at, on average, 45 on the scale. So that’s statistically closer to the quadrupedal human ancestor than the full human.

STONE: And closer to home…

KTEILY: Every single sample we’ve ever collected data from, and we’ve now collected a lot of samples, we found, for example, Muslims in the U.S. to be dehumanized by a range of 10 to 15 points. That’s been every single time. So that part of it has been a little bit surprising and certainly more than a little bit depressing.

STONE: Next, they surveyed participants on how much they support aggressive actions against other groups, such as torture or drone strikes. The researchers found that the more a person dehumanized another group, the more likely they were to support aggressive actions against that group.

KTEILY: When you come to see a group as animals, it brings with it a certain set of potential strategies to deal with them that, unfortunately, end up tending to be more aggressive and less peaceful.

STONE: With this in mind, Kteily started investigating what happens to a group of people when they feel dehumanized by others. Essentially, what’s it like to be on the receiving end of this dehumanization?

KTEILY: As we had predicted, those individuals that felt dehumanized by another group tended to respond by dehumanizing that group back.

STONE: Stop to think about this for a second: Group A dehumanizes Group B, which in their minds justifies violent actions against Group B, so Group B feels dehumanized, which in their minds justifies violent actions against Group A, and, well, you get the picture.

KTEILY: It’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy. You fulfill some of those hostile perceptions that you had in the first place, engaging and creating a cycle of vicious conflict between these groups. And so from a societal perspective, I think that we need to recognize the danger of allowing these types of dehumanizing perceptions to have the national platform that they’ve been receiving and the normativeness that they’ve been allowed.

STONE: Which brings us to the presidential race. When the campaign started heating up last fall, Kteily decided that, for better or worse, it presented a perfect opportunity to examine the effect of dehumanizing campaign rhetoric.

He and his collaborators have been conducting their dehumanization surveys after a candidate says something flagrantly inflammatory, such as Trump’s call to bar Muslims from entering the country.

KTEILY: Feeling dehumanized can have really dramatic consequences. So we’re finding, for example, that Muslim Americans who feel dehumanized by Donald Trump, they’re reporting feeling less integrated into U.S. society, feeling more on the fringes of U.S. society, and perhaps most troublingly of all, they’re reporting less willingness to share any suspicious information in their neighborhoods with police. So this has dramatic societal implications.

STONE: As disheartening as this may be, there are also encouraging results to share: the researchers see a way to stop this cycle of dehumanization.

They presented people with information about how another group humanizes them. So, for example, they had a group of American participants read real statements about how Arabs respect American academic institutions and consider Americans technologically and culturally advanced.

KTEILY: Our prediction was that if we provided Americans with this type of information relative to a control condition, that they would actually be less likely to respond by dehumanizing Muslims or, in other words, more likely to respond by relatively humanizing Muslims and Arabs. And that’s, in fact, what we found.

STONE: Meaning, the more humanized a group felt, the more likely they were to humanize the other group in return. That’s an important finding given the rhetoric of the presidential campaign.

KTEILY: I think that communicating that message to Muslims, that perhaps in fact non-Muslim Americans don’t see you in the same way that Donald Trump sees you, or those that happen to support Donald Trump see you, is an important message to communicate, because, again, I think there’s great danger in communicating to another group, or set of groups for that matter, that the rest of us see you like animals.

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STONE: What are the first words you think of when you hear this?

CLINTON: I think America can only live up to its potential when we make sure that every American has a chance to live up to his or her potential.

STONE: Or this?

SANDERS: I think we are touching a nerve with the American people who understand that establishment politics is just not good enough. We need bold changes. We need a political revolution.

STONE: Those were, as you probably know, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

So what words come to mind when you hear these presidential candidates?

That’s what Julie Hennessy, a clinical professor of marketing at the Kellogg School, is studying. For the past several years, Hennessy and her collaborators have been conducting surveys of the associations consumers have with different brands. Recently, they started conducting these surveys on presidential candidates’ brands.

Traditional brand awareness studies give consumers a list of words to chose from.

Julie HENNESSY: Do you think of McDonald’s as healthy, or do you think of McDonald’s as unhealthy, or fun, or good for kids, or inexpensive, or convenient, or those sorts of things.

STONE: But this type of study has its limitations.

HENNESSY: We noticed that while, if you ask consumers if McDonald’s is fun, they will say McDonald’s is moderately fun, if you don’t give them any prompts and you just ask consumers what do you think of when you think of the brand McDonald’s, that never comes up.

STONE: Hennessy’s surveys are unscripted.

HENNESSY: We would say, “When you think of the brand Apple, what comes to mind?” We’d give them two or three seconds to answer that question, and then we would say, “What else?” And, “What else?”

STONE: When applying this method to presidential candidates, some distinct trends emerge.

Clinton, for example, gets words like “smart,” as well as “liar.” Sanders wins for “honest” but also gets … “old.” Among Republicans, Trump gets “rich,” as well as “racist.” Cruz gets “conservative,” Rubio gets “young,” and Kasich gets “Ohio.” Perhaps prophetically, in surveys last fall, Jeb Bush didn’t get much of anything—respondents had to be pushed for an answer, at which point “political family” was the most common response.

So, what’s a candidate to do if they want to change their brand’s image? Hennessy points to a lesson from her surveys about Volkswagon right after its recent emissions scandal, when the press was declaring the brand dead.

HENNESSY: When we went out to consumers and looked at what are the dominant associations with Volkswagen, it was still “German,” and “compact car,” and “efficient.” Down on the list, about 15th, was “emissions scandal.” The interesting thing to us, and really shocking thing to us, was that it wasn’t anywhere near as dominant in the associations as we thought it would be.

STONE: Some of this, she believes, is because Americans tend to have a pretty low opinion of car manufacturers to begin with.

HENNESSY: You’ve had Toyota’s unintended acceleration, followed by Chevy’s problem with ignition switches, and this is Volkswagen’s problem. I think consumers were like, yeah, we can’t trust these people. It didn’t really change what they thought.

STONE: Then there’s the fact that the more people know about a specific brand, the harder it is to change those perceptions.

HENNESSY: On brands that have very high awareness, consumers know so much that events that seem somewhat cataclysmic often don’t really change what they believe.

What struck me was actually less what events make associations change, but the fact that associations don’t really change much.

STONE: This, she’s found, is what’s happening with Trump’s brand. Of all the candidates, he’s the only one who had an actual corporate brand before the campaign began. And there’s very high awareness of his brand as a candidate, too, which he’s using to his advantage.

HENNESSY: He’s leveraged his brand as a business person who gets things done and is not afraid to grab the bull by the horns and try to make things happen. He’s not tried to re-brand himself as “not a businessperson” or as “a sensitive soul.”

If anything, he’s changing the set of characteristics that voters think of as necessary to be a president to more match the associations he has as being super action oriented and not afraid to say what he believes, rather than trying to convince people that he has the gravitas or the dignity to be the leader of the United States.

STONE: He’s controlling his own brand well, but he’s also managed to control the brands of his opponents. Think of his labeling of Jeb Bush as “low energy.” Trump said it, and Hennessy soon saw that phrase pop up as answers in her surveys about Bush.

HENNESSY: Positioning loves a vacuum. If somebody is not doing a good job of branding themself, I think one of the things that Trump has done, I don’t know if we would say villainously or brilliantly, is to not only brand himself, but also to brand others in ways that were pretty darn sticky.

STONE: So how will all this play out for Trump?

HENNESSY: Trying to predict Trump has been a losing battle for so many other folks, I would not join in and try.

[music interlude]

STONE: Obviously, a lot is at stake in a presidential election. This creates endless research topics for business school professors. Beyond rhetoric and branding, there are questions of economic policy, the use of big data, even leadership style. Step into the mind, for a second, of strategy professor Tom Hubbard to hear how he would formulate a research study, this one about political advertising.

TOM HUBBARD: Because broadcasters are compelled to carry such advertising at the lowest rate that they offer, it crowds out other advertising.

STONE: Previous research has shown that pharmaceutical sales decline when their ads get bumped during an election cycle. Hubbard wonders if the same holds true for bigger ticket items, like cars.

HUBBARD: After all, a lot of what gets crowded out in local advertising is advertising for local car dealers.

STONE: Because primaries are staggered throughout the winter and spring, a researcher could gather data on when ads aired and what happened to auto sales during those peak weeks.

HUBBARD: If you see that it diminishes sales in the long run, or it shifts sales from now into the future, then you can say that political advertising has a real effect on the economy.

It would be even more interesting if auto manufacturers realized this and timed their production accordingly, knowing, anticipating that the election cycle is going to either lead to lower sales, or it’s going to shift sales from the primary season to the future.

STONE: And you thought presidential elections were only about choosing the next leader of the free world.

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This program was produced by Jessica Love, Fred Schmalz, Emily Stone, and Michael Spikes.

Special thanks to Kellogg School professors Nour Kteily, Julie Hennessy, and Tom Hubbard.

You can stream or download our monthly podcast from iTunes, or from our website, where you can read more about brands, elections, and leadership. Visit us at insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu. We’ll be back next month with another Insight In Person podcast.