Engineered Electioneering
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Policy Marketing Oct 1, 2010

Engi­neered Electioneering

The when” and what” of can­di­dates’ messages.

Based on the research of

Hakkyun Kim

Akshay R. Rao

Angela Y. Lee

When it comes to per­suad­ing vot­ers, the tim­ing of a candidate’s mes­sage may be as impor­tant as the mes­sage itself.

In a series of exper­i­ments involv­ing a hypo­thet­i­cal can­di­date, Angela Y. Lee, a pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at the Kel­logg School of Man­age­ment, found that tem­po­ral prox­im­i­ty to an elec­tion influ­enced how vot­ers received spe­cif­ic kinds of polit­i­cal mes­sages. Abstract notions res­onat­ed with vot­ers ear­ly in the cam­paign, but con­crete mes­sages became more mean­ing­ful as Elec­tion Day approached, accord­ing to the research.

When told the elec­tion was six months away, study par­tic­i­pants react­ed more favor­ably to can­di­date mes­sages about core val­ues” and ideals and stan­dards” than to state­ments about imple­ment­ing solu­tions and mak­ing ini­tia­tives work.” The oppo­site was true when sub­jects were told the elec­tion was a week away.

Lee and her col­leagues Hakkyun Kim, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor at Con­cor­dia Uni­ver­si­ty of Mon­tréal, and Akshay R. Rao, a pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta, said Pres­i­dent Oba­ma — per­haps unknow­ing­ly — suc­cess­ful­ly deployed this strat­e­gy dur­ing the 2008 cam­paign. In the cam­paign­ing lead­ing up to the Iowa cau­cus­es, his Demo­c­ra­t­ic rivals, Hillary Clin­ton and John Edwards, spent a fair amount of time talk­ing about the dough­nut hole in Medicare Part D — a con­crete issue. Barack Oba­ma, mean­while, employed soar­ing — and abstract — rhetoric that invoked themes of hope” and change.”

He was empha­siz­ing abstract themes and cap­tur­ing the imag­i­na­tion of cau­cus goers, while his oppo­nents were cap­tur­ing the atten­tion of the D.C. estab­lish­ment, who then spent a fair amount of time dis­sect­ing and cri­tiquing their var­i­ous plans to fix health care, get out of Iraq, and what have you,” Rao says.

The study results could help polit­i­cal can­di­dates make bet­ter use of the increas­ing­ly huge sums they are spend­ing to reach vot­ers. The cost of the 2008 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign pit­ting Barack Oba­ma against John McCain exceed­ed $1 bil­lion, more than dou­ble the expense of the 1996 pres­i­den­tial con­test between Bill Clin­ton and Bob Dole.

Mar­ket­ing and Message 

Tim­ing How­ev­er, the impli­ca­tions of Lee and her col­leagues’ research extend beyond polit­i­cal cam­paigns. Insights from the study, Lee notes, may help con­sumer goods mar­keters devel­op more per­sua­sive mes­sages and may also help pub­lic health offi­cials design more effec­tive cam­paigns against such health threats as obe­si­ty and smok­ing. For exam­ple, she says, mes­sages that urge peo­ple to lose weight or quit smok­ing as an imme­di­ate goal should pro­vide con­crete infor­ma­tion on how the objec­tive can be achieved.

In cas­es where the tem­po­ral hori­zon is mixed — for exam­ple, some peo­ple are in the mar­ket for new cars, oth­ers are not — adver­tis­ing can com­bine abstract and con­crete mes­sages. Con­sumers will migrate to the mes­sage they actu­al­ly like and they will focus on that,” Lee explains.

As an alter­na­tive, mar­keters can manip­u­late con­sumers’ time hori­zon through the clever use of imagery and get all their poten­tial cus­tomers on the same page. A lot of times in adver­tis­ing, we project a sce­nario. We all have seen com­mer­cials of a dad look­ing at his lit­tle girl and think­ing that one day she is going to be a love­ly bride,” observes Lee. An ad like this can real­ly bring peo­ple to think about a more dis­tant future.”

The study drew on pri­or research show­ing that tem­po­ral prox­im­i­ty influ­ences the way peo­ple think about events. For exam­ple, Lee observes, some­one trav­el­ing to Can­cun for a vaca­tion tomor­row is more like­ly to think about such con­crete details as check-in lines and flight delays, where­as if the trip is in three months then he or she is more like­ly to be think­ing about the abstract qual­i­ty of a relax­ing after­noon on the east­ern coast of Mexico.

Polit­i­cal Cam­paign Mes­sage Tim­ing Matters

Lee and her col­leagues want­ed to find out if tim­ing had any influ­ence on the way con­sumers under­stood mar­ket­ing mes­sages. To get at the answer, they decid­ed to look at a polit­i­cal cam­paign because it has a pre­dictable tem­po­ral rhythm that engages all vot­ers in the same way.

In the first exper­i­ment, 92 under­grad­u­ates were pro­vid­ed with state­ments from a fic­tion­al can­di­date for U.S. Sen­ate with the androg­y­nous name of Pat Darvell. One state­ment was abstract and focused on ideals and val­ues; the oth­er state­ment was con­crete and focused on the impor­tance of being action-ori­ent­ed.” Each type of state­ment came in two ver­sions: one say­ing the cam­paign would begin in one week, and the oth­er say­ing the cam­paign would start in six months. After read­ing the state­ments, sub­jects were asked to rate their atti­tudes toward the can­di­date and their assess­ment of the candidate’s state­ment.

Lee said par­tic­i­pants pre­ferred the can­di­date and the mes­sage that fit with their tem­po­ral mind set. Mes­sages that empha­sized high-lev­el, goal-ori­ent­ed abstract themes were more per­sua­sive when the cam­paign was six months in the future. Mes­sages that empha­sized con­crete, low-lev­el, action-ori­ent­ed issues were more con­vinc­ing when the start of the cam­paign was at hand.

Because the atti­tudes of inde­pen­dent vot­ers often deter­mine elec­tions, a sec­ond exper­i­ment of 106 sub­jects com­pared the reac­tions of experts (par­ty loy­al­ists) to novices (inde­pen­dents). Tim­ing had an effect on novices, but not on experts, who pre­sum­ably rely on oth­er sources of infor­ma­tion when judg­ing a can­di­date. In addi­tion, Lee says, informed vot­ers are most like­ly com­mit­ted to their can­di­date and there­fore not swayed by tem­po­ral effects.

Lee cau­tioned that the research was far from a blue­print for win­ning elec­tions. The study, she not­ed, did not look at all the com­plex fac­tors that come into play dur­ing a cam­paign. What else do vot­ers rely on? Is it just the cam­paign? Is it com­men­tary? Is it how oth­er peo­ple talk about dif­fer­ent can­di­dates? All these things mat­ter,” Lee says. The cam­paign itself might not be the most impor­tant thing.”

Relat­ed read­ing on Kel­logg Insight

First Among Equals? Prime bal­lot posi­tion improves a candidate’s chances of win­ning office

Vot­ers Love Win­ners (And So Do Endorsers): How endorsers can gain the upper hand

Pre­dict­ing Pol­i­tics: Pre­dic­tion mar­kets out-pre­dict polit­i­cal pollsters

Featured Faculty

Angela Y. Lee

Mechthild Esser Nemmers Professor of Marketing, Chair of Marketing Department

About the Writer

Denise Gellene is a freelance science and business writer based in Los Angeles, California.

About the Research

Kim, Hakkyun, Akshay R. Rao, and Angela Y. Lee. 2009. It’s Time to Vote: The Effect of Matching Message Orientation and Temporal Frame on Political Persuasion. Journal of Consumer Research. 35: 877–889.

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