The Dim-Post

March 25, 2015

More on political messaging and advertising

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 2:20 pm

My theory about National’s messaging in the preceding post isn’t a general theory of why National is popular. There are several drivers behind that: their success at fundraising, their very impressive organisational skills, Key’s personal qualities, Labour sucking for almost ten years now. It’s an explanation as to why their messaging makes so little sense and is often in total contradiction of the known facts (cf Key claiming that a loss in Northland would see the death of the South Korean free-trade deal) the theory being that, like advertising it’s about engaging people on an emotional level, not a rational one.

Some people in the comments to the previous post say that this buys into Bombers ‘sleepy Hobbits and stupid sheeple love National’ rhetoric. I don’t think people are stupid. But they often lack perfect information and advertising is often about exploiting that in ways that deliberately confuse them and draw them towards choices that favor the advertiser.

Consider painkillers. There are shelves full of them in the supermarkets, and they generally fall into two classes: name brand (Nurofen, Panadol) and generics. These products contain the exact same active ingredients (ibuprofen, paracetamol) and the generics are roughly half the price of the name brand, but most consumers buy the name brand.

Is that because those consumers are stupid? I don’t think so. It’s because people just aren’t that informed about the pharmacology of analgesics, and when they’re walking down the aisle and see a wall of different products they see Panadol and associate it with words like ‘trusted and effective’ (the exact same phrases National uses to describe its management of the economy) recalled by years of half-glimpsed ads. There is no rational argument name-brand companies can make for you to buy their products. (And you shouldn’t!) so the messaging is either emotive (trusted, effective) or disinformation (some name brand products claim to treat sinus pain, others back pain or migraines, they are all the same identical product).

People can find out about the qualities of generic painkillers. The box is right there on the shelf, so there is ‘balance’ in that sense. But the majority of people aren’t that engaged. They have other things to do with their lives other than inform themselves on active ingredients of painkillers – and that’s true, I think, of most political issues. How many voters really care about state housing, to the degree that if they hear Bill English droning on about how he’s being sensible and prudent and fixing the housing market they’ll go out and educate themselves to find out whether he’s telling the truth?

37 Comments »

  1. You, sir, are entirely right on this. Popkin’s “The Reasoning Voter” is a good account of this within the realm of politics, and Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” makes some smilier psychological points more broadly.

    Comment by Rob Salmond — March 25, 2015 @ 2:40 pm

  2. All those things may be true. But I wonder whether you are seeking for a complex answer to a question that has an easy answer available.

    You see a National party that has policies you disagree with. And a population that seems to like National anyway.

    Option 1: National is using cunning psychology to have low information voters agree with them. Confusing messages are subtly injected in ways that don’t confuse people.

    Option 2: People actually agree with what National is doing, and the message that you find confusing (because you don’t agree with them) aren’t actually all that confusing.

    Option 2 would require you to accept that some people have a different worldview than you, a worldview in which those messages aren’t so confusing.

    To take your example: Key claims that a loss in Northland could lead to loss of the Korean FTA. Consider that Winston is against the deal, that a loss to NZF would give them an additional MP, and that therefore National need ACT, UF and Maori Party to pass the legislation. Perhaps the Maori Party wouldn’t agree and they couldn’t pass it? Therefore, it is perhaps plausible that a vote for Winston would result in loss of the agreement. More importantly, in the world of politics things don’t have to be factually true (if they did all our politicians would be in trouble). They need to be directionally accurate. Key is saying “the Korean FTA is a good thing, Winston is against it, a vote for Winston is a vote against that FTA.” He’s highlighting that Winston’s policies are stupid. You see that as confusing messages and cunning psychology and marketing. I see it as a pretty straightforward political message.

    Comment by PaulL — March 25, 2015 @ 2:45 pm

  3. Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” makes some smilier psychological points more broadly.

    Snap, noting that he makes similar points rather than smilier ones.

    Comment by Gregor W — March 25, 2015 @ 3:08 pm

  4. PaulL – 1 and 2 aren’t mutually exclusive. The same message can be used to confuse as to forge confirmation bias; it’s just used to affect different audiences differently.

    To your point “The Korean FTA is a good thing, Winston is against it, a vote for Winston is a vote against that FTA.” will directly appeals to the Option 2 population because it’s comforting to them and will presumably galvanise voter turnout, and it works on the anxieties of the low-information Option 1 population because it sounds credible, coming from someone in a position of authority, delivered authoritatively.

    I’m not sure Danyl is making the case that this approach is necessarily cunning – it’s not IMO – merely that it’s effective.

    Comment by Gregor W — March 25, 2015 @ 3:21 pm

  5. I think all political parties target low-information voters. And they have to, because there simply aren’t enough high-information voters to go around.

    Comment by Can of Worms, Opened — March 25, 2015 @ 3:38 pm

  6. Consider that Winston is against the deal, that a loss to NZF would give them an additional MP, and that therefore National need ACT, UF and Maori Party to pass the legislation.

    That’s not true. National need ACT and UF OR the Maori Party – either combination gives them 61 votes. And both ACT and UF support the deal. As does the Labour Party. So there is zero chance of the FTA failing based on what happens in Northland.

    Comment by Flashing Light — March 25, 2015 @ 4:26 pm

  7. @Can

    There is still a question of how you target low-information voters. Do you try to “teach” information to low information voters and provide a rational argument for their vote. Or do you try to associate your brand with positive thoughts (and your opponent’s brand with negative ones) and forget about any sort of rational argument for voting.

    The world of advertising tells us that the latter approach is very effective. Which seems to be highly dangerous for the idea of democracy. I’d also say the latter strategy is extremely unethical and seems to have great potential to eventually end in guillotines.

    Comment by RJL — March 25, 2015 @ 4:38 pm

  8. National’s ongoing popularity may be down to something as simple as the fact that the majority of NZer’s prefer a government run on pragmatic lines rather than ideology, and this is how they see Key’s approach.

    If so then this causes a problem for Labour as they are seen as relying on the Greens if they are to get into power, but most NZer’s view the Greens as ideologically driven.

    Comment by Graham McLauchlan — March 25, 2015 @ 4:48 pm

  9. “I don’t think people aren’t stupid”… are you testing us?

    Comment by Michael — March 25, 2015 @ 4:54 pm

  10. I’d also say the latter strategy is extremely unethical and seems to have great potential to eventually end in guillotines.

    You’d be wrong about the guillotines, but right about the lack of ethics. We have consistently practiced the latter type of politics in New Zealand and no guillotines, yet. When political parties try to teach “information” to low information voters, it is always information framed in the service of their political stance.

    In politics there are no generic brand painkillers, there are only Panadol and Nurofen.

    Comment by unaha-closp — March 25, 2015 @ 5:20 pm

  11. Graham it isn’t that the Greens are ideologically driven it is that most NZders view if the Greens is ideologically driven.

    Comment by Andrew R — March 25, 2015 @ 6:08 pm

  12. Is accusing people of being ignorant really that much better than accusing them of being stupid?

    Comment by kalvarnsen — March 25, 2015 @ 6:14 pm

  13. The job of a PM is not to be an emotion free technocrat. That’s certainly not what voters expect of their leaders whatever part of the political spectrum they inhabit. While there are strong managerial elements to the job, in communicating with the wider nation/voters there is a very strong symbolic and emotional element. These elements are an inherent part of the task not a sinister add on. Key uses a wide range of channels to do communicate these elements, including ones that have not been common in the past like his regular appearances on commercial radio. These are less about ideas or facts than they are about projecting his personality or persona. This is a perfectly valid thing to do.

    Comment by Tinakori — March 25, 2015 @ 6:14 pm

  14. National and more often than not Key control the agenda. They have all but unfettered access to the media, and most importantly to the media sources that matter for people (“who actually vote” might be added there as a qualifier). When you’ve got that kind of saturated exposure, reality is what you say it is. Good at the economy? Check. Need this trade deal/spying/inflated housing market? Check.

    The parallel with marketing isn’t just a neat coincidence.

    Comment by chaosmogony — March 25, 2015 @ 6:34 pm

  15. How does one describe Winston’s tried a true strategy of stating he’s the only answer to every problem and shouting down anyone who suggests otherwise? It seems to be working again in Northland and it’s truly a thing of beauty to watch him attacking others for ‘ignoring’ an electorate his party couldn’t be bothered standing in just a few months ago.

    Comment by Richard — March 25, 2015 @ 7:41 pm

  16. >In politics there are no generic brand painkillers, there are only Panadol and Nurofen.

    In life you can actually buy both Panadol and Nurofen, getting even better sustained pain relief. In politics if you buy both you get Peter Dunne which is actually a pain in the arse.

    Comment by Ben Wilson — March 25, 2015 @ 8:12 pm

  17. Oh and if he gets his way, aspirin would be removed from the shelves. Because rare side effects are obviously worse than widespread pain relief.

    Comment by Ben Wilson — March 25, 2015 @ 8:15 pm

  18. >It seems to be working again in Northland

    Or maybe what’s happened in Northland is people have become sick of National and their lies and evasions, and Peters is just a convenient vessel to express that. The traditional vessel even, for swinging Nats.

    Comment by Ben Wilson — March 25, 2015 @ 8:20 pm

  19. Is that because those consumers are stupid? I don’t think so. It’s because people just aren’t that informed ….

    I found that I’d already put the following link into the DimPost following last year’s election here in NZ:
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2014/10/08/the-persistence-of-public-ignorance-about-federal-spending/

    The quote I’d included then was around the subject of the article – that American voters don’t really give a crap about federal spending and know little about it. However the article also had this related comment, which seems appropriate to this thread:

    The problem is not that the public is stupid or that information is unavailable, but that for most voters it is actually rational to pay little attention to political issues. No matter how well informed you are about the federal budget and entitlements, the likelihood that your knowledge will actually influence policy is miniscule, because there is so little chance that your vote will ever decide an electoral outcome.

    That reality makes it extremely difficult to overcome political ignorance by increasing public knowledge through education, improving media coverage of political issues, or other oft-proposed remedies.

    If it’s any consolation to you all, I find this as annoying from a right-wing perspective as you do from the left-wing.

    Comment by Tom Hunter — March 25, 2015 @ 9:13 pm

  20. @Ben,

    Peter Dunne is a placebo witchdoctor, same hair no potency.

    Comment by unaha-closp — March 25, 2015 @ 11:57 pm

  21. This argument seems to be another version of De Tocqueville’s Tyranny of the majority idea, which indicates the masses can elect unsuitable policies due to their emotional biases. The upshot is that some politicians see themselves as an elite, who like Plato’s Guardians represent a philosophical elite whose job is to educate often by using laws to change behaviour.

    I’m fascinated by how extreme left and extreme right mentalities can apparently share a similar distrust of the general population’s apparent inability to decide things for themselves.

    Comment by Lee Clark — March 26, 2015 @ 7:38 am

  22. There’s some people who spend a great deal of time on politics whose judgement I won’t trust and some that don’t that I would.

    Some issues are too complex to have presented in anything less than Being and Nothingness but there’s a tendency to think that it’s more possibly to summarise issues neatly and succinctly than it really is. So information etc isn’t a straight forward.

    There’s also the problem of us all thinking we have well reasoned, informed and dispasionate political views.

    One somehow has to have faith in the broad trend of politics that has given us both Clark and Key – hated by the partisan but respected by the many – that doesn’t always give us what we want but accepting that not getting what we want is a major part of democracy.

    Comment by NeilM — March 26, 2015 @ 8:29 am

  23. If the public understood policy better, we’d get less BS from politicians, better policy from bureaucrats, and less misinformed news from the media. The public would be holding all these key planks in our democracy to a higher standard. It’s like when I took my Macbook to the Apple Store – I had a decent understanding of IT so I was able to hold him to a higher standard. When I go to a mechanic, on the other hand, I’m fairly sure I get screwed half the time. When it comes to who has power over society, perhaps there should be some kind of basic knowledge requirement? My friend argued in his MA for this very thing. At the time I thought he was an annoying elitist, but the older I get…

    Comment by Seb Rattansen — March 26, 2015 @ 9:03 am

  24. I’m fascinated by how extreme left and extreme right mentalities can apparently share a similar distrust of the general population’s apparent inability to decide things for themselves.

    The left and the right each know (in sometimes great informational depth) that their plan is the one to go with. The middle gets presented with 2 (or more) plans to choose from and often can’t.

    The left and the right have a hate/hate relationship regarding each other as wilfully wrongheaded, but there is somehow a grudging respect for the massive effort the other lot are putting in to obstruct progress. The middle is also obstructionist, but exerts no effort to obstruct and just lazily sits there doing nothing, the middle garners no respect.

    Comment by unaha-closp — March 26, 2015 @ 10:13 am

  25. You make some good points Danyl but they are not peculiar to National. It is what winning brands all do. Interesting to see that Labour are attributing some of their loss, by implication, to the opposite. The quote from Little below is really admitting voters don’t want a list of active ingredients, they want a brand they can trust.

    “I think it is about getting down to a small number of priority issues,” he says. Last year, one of Labour’s problems was drowning the electorate in policy detail”

    Comment by Arkhad — March 26, 2015 @ 11:03 am

  26. The quote from Little below is really admitting voters don’t want a list of active ingredients, they want a brand they can trust.

    They also want to be provided with a vision – no matter how achievable that vision actually is – and a representation of that vision in ‘The Leader’ rather than to be managed or treated in a condescending fashion, which is where I am starting to see National coming unstuck, just as Labour did before them.

    Comment by Gregor W — March 26, 2015 @ 12:23 pm

  27. I was really just trying to make the point that for Labour to win it needs to employ many of the same brand management strategies as National described in Danyl’s previous post and the first para of this one; i.e. success at fundraising, impressive organisational skills, personal qualities, engaging people on an emotional level, not a rational one. That, and to trust that like the sedentary fat coke drinkers watching the slender beautiful people play volleyball, people aren’t engaged enough to subject them to reasoned analysis.

    Trying to sell yourself by talking about the active ingredients list on another brands product has proven itself as a failed strategy. As you say Gregor, people want to be provided with a vision – no matter how achievable that vision actually is – and a representation of that vision in the Leader

    Comment by Arkhad — March 26, 2015 @ 1:06 pm

  28. “I’m fascinated by how extreme left and extreme right mentalities can apparently share a similar distrust of the general population”

    I dont know – i was always taught that either axis of any spectrum (politically) if followed to its extreme leads to dictatorship – with this in kind i dont find the above idea that odd

    Comment by framu — March 26, 2015 @ 3:14 pm

  29. Last year, one of Labour’s problems was drowning the electorate in policy detail

    I don’t think Labour did that at all. I think they did a HUGE amount of work on policy – which gave National loads to attack them on – but they did a horrible job communicating that policy work to the electorate. It was basically just announce something then walk away. Announce the next thing and walk away.

    Comment by danylmc — March 26, 2015 @ 3:18 pm

  30. Pretty much – Labour had this absolutely awful habit from about 2007-now of coming up with a good policy – often these would be technocratic, evidence-based, part of a mainstream consensus – and then absolutely fuck up the communication.

    GST off fresh fruit & veges was a classic example – evidence based, popular, public health and good for people’s wallets – but then it just got horrifically mis-sold and so it had to be canned. Rinse and repeat. There were a bunch of reasons why this happened but man it was frustrating to watch.

    Comment by Keir Leslie — March 26, 2015 @ 3:37 pm

  31. GST off fresh fruit & veges was a classic example

    Actually, it’s a classic example of a feel-good publicly popular policy but non well thought through in terms of outcomes.

    Taking bananas as an example, the obvious point against it is that the price people are willing to bear for a low cost, non substitutable commodity products (in that we can assume people really like bananas exclusively because of their banana-ness) , has almost no relationship to any marginal taxation component, particularly in a market where the lions share is controlled by a cosy duopoly – i.e. If bananas cost $2 a bunch with GST on, you can be sure they wouldn’t cost 15% less without GST because the market demands a large but relatively inelastic volume of bananas.

    Comment by Gregor W — March 26, 2015 @ 4:00 pm

  32. “Last year, one of Labour’s problems was drowning the electorate in policy detail”

    This is Andrew Little’s statement not mine!

    Comment by Arkhad — March 26, 2015 @ 4:11 pm

  33. 31 is a classic of the “poorly understood armchair pseudo-economics” genre – the claim that bananas are non-substituable and inelastic is particularly funny.

    Comment by Keir — March 26, 2015 @ 5:11 pm

  34. Hi framu, I suppose i should have said “a bit left/a bit right” for more comedic effect.

    Comment by Lee Clark — March 26, 2015 @ 6:38 pm

  35. “How many voters really care about state housing, to the degree that if they hear Bill English droning on about how he’s being sensible and prudent and fixing the housing market they’ll go out and educate themselves to find out whether he’s telling the truth?”
    Obvious point: but they shouldn’t have to ‘go out and educate themselves’ – that’s the job of an effective opposition, using much the same channels National uses. We don’t get a lot of rousing rhetoric and sharp arguments. Key is still the best communicator in NZ politics. Hubris and over-reach (thinking he can talk his way out of anything) have well and truly arrived, though. Eg http://www.nbr.co.nz/opinion/sabin-clock-keeps-ticking-key#.VRRuTbnSgdA.twitter

    Comment by Robinson Stowell — March 27, 2015 @ 11:34 am

  36. Here’s the thing, there’s a science to tricking people. We call it public relations and advertising, used to be called propaganda. It’s a proper science and it totally works. Now, there’s several things complicate that greatly. Everyone uses scientific propaganda, even the Greens these days recognise the value of getting their message out in a way that people can actually hear it.

    But people don’t vote based on policy. Social sciences show that people try to side with their tribe, like there’s a hundred and fifty of us and the neighbours are planning on raiding us for supplies so you better be on board or else. Scientific racism was popular because it fed into that bullshit tribalism, fake existential threats to the social order are easy vote winners since forever.

    People hate National’s policies, and Labour’s, if you ask people blind about what policy they want, it is mostly Green and Mana policy, tax the rich (but not us), massive free public services, local decision making, infrastructure for the future, long game for the grandkids, look after all the nesteggs, don’t shit where you eat.

    But people don’t vote for that, because they’re “not Greenies”. Their tribal instincts make them aspirationally identify with John Key, that’s why he’s on all the billboards that don’t mention any policy points. Office job, numbers stuff and personnel too, shifted around a bit, went overseas, owns a couple of houses, people are totally jealous, fuckin’ A. He’s relaxed about that? Hell, I can be relaxed about that too. Voters.

    And yes, people are completely stupid and childish outside their areas of expertise. Politics is not taught in school, it’s not on TV, almost no one actually works for political parties (seriously, you can know them all in NZ). People do not get it at all, and 90% of the messaging out there is directed by the two big parties who no longer represent the desires of the general public. You can talk people’s ears off about policy that would do them endless good and they’ll tell you “yeah, but I’m not one of those crazy Greenies.” Because people are genuinely stupid when surrounded by effective lies and disinformation with almost no balancing source of facts. People who watch Fox News know less about the world than people who don’t have any source of news at all, propaganda can and does literally make people stupider.

    Our government’s busy overturning centuries of law that people fought nasty wars to win around privacy of communications and other basic rights. No one cares, because the media tells them not to, and it’s not like they teach the importance of legal rights in school or anything. When John Key says he’s not sure that’s important, and no one says otherwise on the news, well, I’m not sure it’s important either, just that simple.

    Comment by tussock — March 28, 2015 @ 2:48 pm

  37. Keir – oK then, tell me than what’s a terrific substitute for bananas that’s just like bananas ( as opposed to say a good of the type ‘fruit’ of which there are plenty) and why the consumption of bananas is so elastic based on price?

    Keen to hear your explanation.

    Comment by Gregor W — March 28, 2015 @ 4:32 pm


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: