Podcast: Does What Candidates Say Matter?
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Politics & Elections Mar 28, 2016

Pod­cast: Does What Can­di­dates Say Matter?

Under­stand­ing polit­i­cal rhetoric in this heat­ed pres­i­den­tial race.

A candidate speaks into a microphone at a political event.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research and insights of

Nour Kteily

Julie Hennessy

Thomas N. Hubbard

Listening: Political Rhetoric

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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 episode 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.

[music inter­lude]

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.

[music inter­lude]

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.

[music inter­lude]

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​.kel​logg​.north​west​ern​.edu. We’ll be back next month with anoth­er episode of the Insight In Per­son podcast.

Featured Faculty

Nour Kteily

Associate Professor of Management & Organizations

Julie Hennessy

Clinical Professor of Marketing

Thomas N. Hubbard

Elinor and H. Wendell Hobbs Professor of Management and Faculty Director of Strategic Initiatives

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