Advertising Persuasion has Changed: are political parties on top of it?

by Paul S. Hillier, March 16, 2015. The Hill Times. Reprinted with permission.

Second only to the rampant speculation as to whether there was going to be a spring election (which many enjoyed with sport-like enthusiasm), inside the Queensway many are questioning how political parties will spend their respective war chests leading up to the election.

A smaller group of us are watching closely for which tactics political parties will draw on from commercial advertisers.

One of 2014’s most influential advertising campaigns has significant lessons for those engaged in advocacy and political campaigns. Honey Maid’s campaign “This is Wholesome” used exclusively positive messages; however, it was deliberately divisive.

Most successful commercial advertisers have abandoned an old, three-step model for persuasion of 1) provide information, in order to 2) change beliefs, to ultimately 3) change behaviour.

The model is ineffective. It fails to deliver from step 1 to 2, because as recent studies show, 80% of audiences don’t believe companies tell the truth in advertising. New information has little impact on beliefs. It further fails to deliver from step 2 to 3, because beliefs are more likely to shift than behaviours when the two conflict (who among us has not long-since abandoned our New Years’ resolutions).

More effective is a two-step model: 1) trigger audiences’ vulnerabilities, in order to 2) cause behaviour change. Vulnerabilities must continually be triggered to maintain the changed behaviour, so to make behaviour permanent, beliefs then must be altered or reinforced afterwards.

Targeting Vulnerabilities to Change Behaviour

Honey Maid’s campaign depicts non-traditional families (interracial, divorced, same-sex) with the message “no matter how things change, what makes us wholesome never will.”

Those of us who are moved by the campaign’s messages of diversity and inclusion (the campaign’s “ingroup”) will support it even more because of others (the campaign’s “outgroup”) who will not consider these families wholesome.

Vulnerabilities are needs or desires—to either have or avoid something—that can be triggered. There is nothing necessarily deceitful in triggering vulnerabilities. Much like political advertising, Honey Maid publicizes its values to target an audience’s needs.

Honey Maid’s campaign targets needs for social belonging and respect of peers. It encourages the audience to reject the outgroup, because groups self-identify more strongly when in contrast to others who are different. The campaign further triggers the audience’s desire to be praised by others for their values, which they can again achieve by rejecting the outgroup.

In triggering these vulnerabilities, the behaviour that Honey Maid aims to achieve is having its audience vocalize support for the campaign. This behaviour is prized because public support—on social media or word-of-mouth—significantly entrenches one’s own support.

Similarly, political organizations use social media campaigns with exceptional skill to promote participation (beginning with even a simple “like” or “retweet”) to accomplish the same phenomenon. In sales this is called “foot-in-the-door” and in advocacy campaigns called an engagement ladder.

The importance of establishing this ingroup in advocacy campaigns is highlighted by the research done by the Center for Food Integrity, wherein having shared values was measured as 3-to-5 times more important than technical skills in building trust.

A critical lesson for political advertisers comes from the debate over Ontario honeybees: campaigns using the three-step model do not fare well against the two-step model.

Two opposing groups are currently launching extensive advertising campaigns over whether Ontario bee populations are decreasing as a result of a single cause, or whether these are standard fluctuations. One conclusion may be more methodologically sound; however, audiences will adopt behaviour being advocated by the side whose values they share. While one campaign is using the two-step model to link values, the other is using the three-step model aiming to persuade through information.

Altering Beliefs After Behaviour

Altering beliefs is most effectively done by associating the audience’s existing values in new directions. This tactic is widely established within political advertising. Returning to the Honey Maid case study, it does not aim to change anyone’s stance on what they consider wholesome; the campaign alters the audience’s beliefs to now associate Honey Maid with values they support.

By triggering behavior, Honey Maid also leads its audience to undergo shifts in their self-identity. Once someone takes an action, they intuitively begin to think of themselves as the kind of person that engages in that behaviour. Wanting to appear consistent, beliefs and subsequent behaviours are impacted.

Groups that solicit donations—particularly low dollar amounts—are experts at triggering behaviour that reinforces belief (which, in turn, makes behaviour permanent).

Conclusion

As important as this two-step model is for Honey Maid and countless other brands, it is used for more than selling Teddy Grahams and Graham Crackers. It is used by advocacy groups to sway public opinion, by militaries to fight wars, and by political parties to win elections.
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View online at The Hill Times.