Big Bird, Binders, and Bayonets: Psychographic marketing and the 2012 presidential election

OPINION - Political candidates such as Romney are now using many psychological and marketing tactics to increase their likelihood of victory on election day at the expense of maintaining their integrity...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Presidential elections have historically been viewed as a sacred sector of American society in which candidates stand upon their beliefs and debate the issues of the day for a chance to become the leader of the free world. Now, campaign spending is in the hundreds of millions of dollars with each side using sophisticated methods to determine the best way to spend the cash. Political candidates use many psychological and marketing tactics to increase their likelihood of victory on election day. These tactics are risky for the candidates, because the overuse of them can make the candidates seem untrustworthy and undermine their integrity. However, the ultimate losers are the constituents who are encouraged to have extremely high expectations of candidates, which they cannot deliver on. In the end, if we believe the results of “messaging” over solid platforms, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

The psychology of an election

Individuals like to think that they only use important political issues to determine who they are going to vote for, but over fifty years of psychological research tends to prove otherwise. Books like Thinking, Fast and Slow, Predictably Irrational, and Influence show the plethora of psychological biases that we use to make decisions every day. It is hard to make informed decisions on every issue and political candidates know this. Therefore, they leverage our mental shortcuts to make themselves look more favorable in the eyes of the public even if that favor is not warranted.

A perfect example of this style of campaigning is embodied in Mitt Romney. Handsome, rich, and a former business executive, Romney looks as if he was manufactured instead of born. He conducts himself like a boss, so people automatically assume that he will be good at creating jobs. He takes advantage of the image he projects when marketing himself as president, and the biases in people’s thinking that allow him to exploit that image.

Yet, if you look at his record, Romney has a history of shipping jobs overseas. Massachusetts experienced no jobs growth while he was governor. How can this mental disconnect happen, even for smart and — at least moderately — informed voters?

Here are the top psychological phenomenon that marketers often use to push products — which politicians seem to be becoming.

The halo effect

The halo effect is the tendency for individuals to judge a person’s qualifications based upon our overall impression of him or her. So, if a person “looks the part,” then people automatically assume that they can “be the part.” This mental shortcut has been examined in a number of realms including politics, business, the military, and education. The halo effect can be very dangerous as it gives underqualified people the potential for more power they can responsibly wield. In the eyes of many, Romney looks exactly like a prototypical president so they assume that he will be a good one, despite the lack of proof.