Students of marketing have known this for years: you sell the sizzle, not the steak. At the point of sale, though, you had better be able to deliver the beef.
When you make the decision to buy something, there are many facts to consider. Is it a quality product? Will it last? Will its maker be there to fix problems if they arise? Will I like it after I have bought it, or regret the purchase? If we each had a personal research staff, we could keep it busy for a week before we bought a cup of coffee.
That is where branding comes in. Consider that cup of coffee: it might be yesterday’s leftover thin, oily swill, or it may be the rich, creamy latte we hoped it would be. If we buy it from an unfamiliar corner kiosk, we take our chances. If we buy it from Starbuck’s, we know what to expect. We trust in the effort that has gone into making that coffee for us. We know that Starbuck’s has taken the time and expense to resolve all those quality questions for us before we buy from them. Without thinking about all that, we will pay extra for the Starbuck’s brand, and feel good about it.
Feeling good is what branding is all about. We don’t have to worry about the facts that lie behind our coffee—the violence in Colombia, the tariffs on coffee imports, the wages paid our barista—because Starbucks has taken care of all this behind the scenes. We see that green and white logo, and feel good about the coffee. That good feeling, not the facts, sells us on the coffee.
Near the turn of the 20th century, Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov was studying the digestive process in dogs. He diverted the flow of saliva to an external pouch so that he could measure its volume. He noticed that the volume of saliva produced by the dogs in his lab increased when the technician who usually fed them came into the room. To see whether this was a psychological phenomenon, Pavlov chose a more neutral stimulus (the sound of a metronome) to precede the dog’s feedings before the technician entered the room. Soon the steady tick if the metronome was sufficient to make the dogs’ mouths water in anticipation of food.
Pavlov (and Edwin Twitmyer, working independently at the University of Pennsylvania using the knee-jerk reflex) had discovered the conditioned reflex. We have added much hard science since their pioneering work. Classical conditioning applies a stimulus before the desired reflex, in order to provoke it. Operant conditioning, researched by American psychologist B.F.Skinner, applies a stimulus, either pleasant or noxious, after a behavior has occurred in order to create an association that will reward, modify, or extinguish it. In humans, simply imagining the conditioned stimulus can evoke the response. Just thinking about the sizzle can make you want the steak. That principle lies at the heart of the branding phenomenon.
Increasingly, emotional conditioning lies at the heart of American electoral politics, especially at the national level. In today’s politics, the term “dog whistles” reverberates with echoes of Pavlov’s lab.
“Sound bites” on television news were goals before the ascendance of social media. Simple phrases such as “I like Ike” and “We Shall Overcome” carried practically no cognitive information, but evoked huge affective responses. One could like Ike without going to the trouble of learning his positions. Overcoming adversity just sounds good, no matter what it is you are overcoming. Attaching positive operant stimuli to your candidate’s name wins votes.
Negative operant stimuli work at least as well. LBJ’s powerful campaign video, of an innocent little girl counting daisy petals, juxtaposed with a mushroom cloud, tanked Barry Goldwater’s campaign, though hardly anyone could articulate his positions on childcare or nuclear war. When a haggard Richard Nixon cried “I am not a crook!” on national TV from the White House, the very perception of crookedness became the quicksand that sank his presidency; the more he wriggled, the faster he went down. As candidates realized this, negative campaigning became the underpinning of American politics. It remains so today.
Great as the sound bite is, the tweet is greater. Its limited length precludes filling it with cognitive content, but its immediacy makes it a powerful emotional platform. A Congressional budget proposal may run to thousands of pages of arcane detail that no tweet thread could hope to contain, and few would ever read, but tweets (“Dems rap GOP budget as Welfare for the Rich!” or “GOP budget is the last hope for the middle class!”) do the job efficiently, are cheap, reach a wide audience, and are read in their entirety.
Facebook posts allow for more cognitive content and less often read to the end, but they can contain pictures that can be absorbed at a glance. Pictures can be a more visceral stimulus that text, and Instagram is nearly all images. Taken as a whole, the social media comprise a powerful political platform whose influence is primarily in the affective, rather than the cognitive, domain.
The social media have a feature that broadcast media did not have before the advent of mass computation: they are curated. Sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Google record and analyze your online preferences, and send you only the content that is likely to please you, and increase the chances that you will return and eyeball their ads again. . If your browsing history tends towards civil rights and economic opportunity, the material you see will be quite different from if you favored gun rights and Christian values. Your profile is then sold to advertisers who want to sell to someone who thinks ad you do, or to politicians who advocate for your causes.
You only hear from people and groups who already agree with you. This tends to reinforce your pre-existing reflex conditioning (yes, we all have it), amplifying the polarization that is shattering American society today.
Now consider the 2016 presidential campaign: the wonk and the wild man.
Hillary Clinton began her candidacy in a flurry of emails and a video, projecting herself as a high achieving policy wonk with a common touch, and with a grand political history. She presented what she considered to be the most positive facts from that history: her achievements as a Senator from New York and as Obama’s Secretary of State, her knowledge with the process of government in Washington and the officials who run it, and a very detailed set of policy proposals that gradually developed on her campaign website during the run-up to the election. She suppressed the facts she considered unflattering: her closeness with the New York investment banks that filled her war chest, her remoteness from the working class that propelled her rival, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and the dynastic appearance of a former First Lady (and the wife of an impeached president, to boot) running for President.
Donald Trump launched his campaign as a blonde deity, in the world he had created (Trump Tower), descending a golden escalator accompanied by his impossibly beautiful wife, into the roar of an adoring crowd. It was very long on show, without facts or analytical thinking to get in the way of our feelings of awe. In the campaign that followed, he promised us policies that would be beautiful, unprecedented, the best ever. He offered an economic plan, but when actual economists weighed in against it, he stopped touting it. He never sullied his rhetoric with actual details after that. He sold himself as a champion of the working man, too rich to be corrupted, but he refused to offer details of his wealth. He piggybacked on the ideas of others—the NRA, the Christian right, Breitbart—for the passions they aroused rather than the ideas themselves, which he appeared to only dimly understand. He openly defied ‘political correctness’ without defining what it was, and courted those who did not require ideas or facts. “I love the poorly educated!” he crowed.
When dealing with a wonk, fact-checking is pre-eminent; statistics, facts, data are what drive him. When dealing with a demagogue it is a waste of time. Facts concern him only for the feelings they invoke, and can be spun to suit his pre-determined purpose. “Fake News!” merely makes you cleave tighter to his cause, regardless of the truth of it. Fistfights in the aisle only added to the
The sound of a Hillary rally was the drone of ennui, punctuated occasionally by a shrill hiss like escaping steam, the last gasp of an outmoded, pre-millennial form of feminism. The sound of a Trump rally was the thunder of a demagogue, and the pulse of the crowd shouting back “Lock her Up!” without offering any reason why.
Operant conditioning works both ways, though. It can extinguish behavior as well as incite it. As the crown responds positively to an affective reward, so can it respond adversely to negative reinforcement. A child burnt by a hot stove will not touch it again. A cat punished for soiling the floor will learn to use the litter box. A dog conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell in anticipation of food will soon stop doing so if the reward regularly fails to appear. The branding effect may be a mile wide, but it is only inches deep.
This is especially true in politics. If you promise specifics—universal health care, say, or affordable prescription drugs—at the end of your term the voter can look around and see if you have delivered on your promise; if you haven’t, your office is in jeopardy. When the voter actually feels worse rather than better, look out!
If you have been promised only emotional goals—pride in America, reinforcement of your own racial, ethnic, gender or consumer identity—when the time comes to vote again the voter who was swayed by an appeal to emotion must look within to see if he has been rewarded or disappointed.
This is actually a fairly complicated proposition, since external facts do not apply. If you were promised economic prosperity and then you lost your job, you might feel abandoned and vote no: Oh, no, I’m not going there again! If your vote grew from anger at the political establishment, and now find yourself angrier still, you might vote yes. Hell yes! If you find yourself both economically diminished and politically betrayed, who knows what roiled emotions you will carry into the voting booth, or where they will lead you. A third party seems increasingly possible
The best campaigns, of course, balance the affective with the cognitive. No one did this better than the Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan, who was both a savvy showman and seasoned politician. Consider this opening narration from a TV commercial that ran during 1984 campaign:
“It’s morning again in America. Today more men and women will go to work than ever before in our country’s history. With interest rates at about half the record highs of 1980, nearly 2,000 families today will buy new homes, more than at any time in the past four years. This afternoon 6,500 young men and women will be married, and with inflation at less than half of what it was just four years ago, they can look forward with confidence to the future. It’s morning again in America, and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?
There is an easy to assimilate, uplifting tag line: Morning in America. Dull statistics are made buoyant by an exhortation to feel-good optimism. Why should we care about interest rates, employment statistics or inflation? Because it’s Morning Again in America! Because we are Stronger! and Prouder! and Better! Who is tending to those dull, wonky things that are making us feel so good? Ronald Reagan, that’s who!
What followed were popular and Electoral College landslides, of historic proportions. (Actually historic, not Trumpian histrionic.) Sixty percent of votes cast nationwide were for Reagan. In the Electoral College he lost only a single state, Minnesota, which was the home state of his Democratic opponent, Walter Mondale.
The take home it this: a demagogue usually beats a wonk, and a demagogue who is also a wonk trumps everybody.
2020, Here we come!