How to make your political opponent look bad in TV ads: A step-by-step guide

Since I’m guessing you loathe television political ads as much as I do, let’s turn it into a game; how many of the TV political ads that you see follow this formula?

A black and white old television set. On the screen are found young people gathered around a TV themselves
“not everything has a reason” by Robert Couse-Baker is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Since I’m guessing you loathe television political ads as much as I do, let’s turn it into a game; how many of the TV political ads that you see follow this formula?

(written with sarcasm, but really, see how many actually fit this)

Step 1: Obtain footage of your opponent, preferably with them alone. Bonus points if it shows them walking away from people.

Step 2: Change the footage of your opponent from color to black and white.

Step 3: Add daunting music, as similar to the Jaws movie theme without being obvious. Also, you don’t want to distract your audience by having them think “I really want to watch Jaws now, that movie is awesome.”

Step 4: Contrast the black and white footage you’ve just showed with testimonials from senior citizens, veterans, and working-class people talking about how that candidate just “isn’t right for us,” but your candidate is. Bonus points for each time one of them says “trust” with your candidate.

Step 5: Show video of your candidate walking into a room, waving, while a very large group stands and claps like they’ve each just won a million dollars. Make sure the music is upbeat and hopeful-sounding.

Step 6: Show your candidate having one-on-one conversations with senior citizens, veterans, and working-class people. Bonus points for small children, especially babies.

Step 7: Show your candidate looking directly into the camera, saying how much he or she will “work for you.”

Step 8: End with the obligatory stuff. “I’m x candidate and I approve this message” and “This ad was paid for by x committee that sounds like it has nothing to do with politics.”

And, cut.

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Interviewing? Be careful where you sit and the camera angle

Does it really matter, when you’re doing an interview either in person or on camera, where you sit? It turns out, it does, and rather drastically.

What’s-focal-is-presumed-causal phenomenon

In Robert Cialdini’s newest book Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade he discusses the what’s-focal-is-presumed-causal phenomenon. Essentially, if a camera or third person is viewing a conversation and they can only see one of the faces in the conversation, they view the person whose face they can see more critically and blame them more.

As Cialdini explains:

As we know from the experiments of [Shelley Taylor, a social psychologist at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA)], a camera angle arranged to record the face of one discussant over the shoulder of another biases that critical judgment toward the more visually salient of the two. We also know now— from the more recent experiments of social psychologist Daniel Lassiter— that such a camera angle aimed at a suspect during an interrogation leads observers of the recording to assign the suspect greater responsibility for a confession (and greater guilt). Moreover, as was the case when Taylor and her coworkers tried it, [social psychologist Daniel Lassiter] and his coworkers found this outcome to be stubbornly persistent. In their studies, it surfaced regardless of whether the observers were men or women, college students or jury-eligible adults in their forties and fifties, exposed to the recording once or twice, intellectually deep or shallow, and previously informed or not about the potentially biasing impact of the camera angle. Perhaps most disturbingly, the identical pattern appeared whether the watchers were ordinary citizens, law enforcement personnel, or criminal court judges.

Cialdini, Robert (2016-09-06). Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade (p. 63-64). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

How can you fix this?

Ask for the camera to be positioned so that it equally shows your face and the interviewer’s face. In person-to-person situations, make sure you’re positioned so that the third party viewers can see everyone’s face equally.

Cialidini notes:

Nothing could change the camera angle’s prejudicial impact— except changing the camera angle itself. The bias disappeared when the recording showed the interrogation and confession from the side, so that the suspect and questioner were equally focal.

Cialdini, Robert (2016-09-06). Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade (p.63- 64). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Of course, if you wanted to heavily turn the tables in your advantage, you would ask to position so that the third party viewers could see only the interviewer’s face, but there are some ethical implications of doing so and, even if that weren’t the case, I doubt you’d be able to convince someone to do it, since you are the subject of the interview.

My suggestion would be to make equal face angles a stipulation of you agreeing to be interviewed. This might be a challenge, especially at the national media level because multiple camera angles keep the interview interesting to the viewers, but it’s still worth working with your PR team to balance the situation.

Go into situations looking for the focal point

Another way of addressing the situation is to predict the focal points ahead of time or notice them right away given the scenario to be able to fix them. This will take some consideration as you approach various situations, and it will be well worth your time to do so. In a non-planned situation, I recommend walking into a situation and immediately assessing the layout, where the cameras are and where everyone is sitting. If you see bad angles, try to fix it from the get-go, before people start sitting down. Once they’ve chosen a seat or a position, they are less likely to move from it.

However, if they have already chosen a position, you could still tactfully try to remedy the situation. For example, if a third party is watching your job interview, you could say something like “Why don’t you join us at the table?” and helpfully put a chair where they can see both faces equally. Or, for a public forum, you could say “How about we arrange these chairs so that it’s more of a conversation?” and set them up so the audience can see both you and your interviewer equally.

Beyond the media interview

As the examples above show, there are also other times when the what’s-focal-is-presumed-causal phenomenon could have an impact on the outcome of your interviews and conversations, including:

  • Public forum discussions
  • Interviews by the police
  • Conflicts being resolved with a mediator
  • Contentious meetings
  • Job interviews

As you move throughout your days, take notice of face and camera angles. This will get you into the habit of looking for this prior to a critical situation.

Implementing change series: Combine active and passive strategies for high-impact results

Implementing a new project, cultural change, movement, etc. is never easy. But one thing that can make it easier is to define each of your strategies as either active or passive.

Dog actively chasing a ball
“photomarathon15” by Delphine Savat, via Flickr Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Implementing a new project, cultural change, movement, etc. is never easy.  But one thing that can make it easier is to define each of your strategies as either active or passive.

Passive vs. Active Strategy

Most of us are familiar with the line from the movie Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.” This is the classic example of a passive strategy; they build the place for people to enjoy, but they make no effort to encourage people to come. The idea is, if it’s there and people want it, they will find it. While it makes for an inspiring movie, it’s only partially true when it comes to implementing change with results. These types of passive, or indirect strategies, do help support the overall strategy, but they must be mixed with active strategies as well.

An active strategy is much more direct; if you do this action, you can expect a specific result related to your goal directly from that action. For example, in a business, if your goal is to increase sales, branding marketing (image ads, corporate sponsorships of community causes) would be passive to making a sale, while sales representatives asking for purchase, coupons, special sales offers etc. are direct/active strategies.

Examples: Politics and OER

One example that I think can hit home for everyone right now is politics. Instinctively, we all know that complaining about politics or debating with our contacts on social media isn’t going to lead directly to change. We may change a mind, eventually, but that isn’t going to solve the larger issues.

  • Holding a demonstration or protest: Most people would think that this is active, but, since it usually won’t lead to changing someone’s mind or changing an outcome, it’s passive
  • Calling your elected representatives and asking them to vote a specific way on a bill: Active
  • Venting on Facebook: Passive
  • Donating to an organization who will directly go and advocate for change: Passive for you, but active in the sense that you are financially supporting someone else to directly ask for change (which you may not be able to do on your own)

In my work for Rice University’s OpenStax, I consult with colleges and universities to encourage faculty to transition to Open Educational Resources (OER), including free textbooks. As part of this process, each school writes a strategic plan that includes specific strategies they will complete to encourage faculty to adopt. 

The question I always ask them is: Does this strategy involve you directly asking faculty to adopt an OER? If the answer is yes, then you have a active/direct strategy, if the answer is no, then you have a passive strategy.

  • Having a display of OER textbooks on the campus. The faculty will see them and look at them and consider adopting them: Passive
  • Going to a faculty member’s office and asking them to pilot an OER:  Active
  • Hosting a faculty panel discussion about OER: Passive
  • Having a sign-in sheet at the above panel and following-up with each attendee afterward individually to ask them to adopt an OER: Active
  • Offering grants in exchange for adoption: Active

Combining Passive and Active Strategies for Results

The key is not to eliminate passive strategies, the goal is to mix both passive and active strategies in a way that creates momentum.

For example, this blog post is a passive strategy, but if I send it to people so they know the difference between the two types of strategies and then use that to help them incorporate both into a strategic plan, that creates momentum. If the protest/demonstration you hold drives PR and traffic to your website, you can use that traffic to ask them to sign-up for more information, sign a petition, etc. thus turning that passive strategy into a way for you to move forward with more resources and support.

The most important thing is that you identify and consider your combination of passive and active strategies and plan for effective results.

Intro/exit music can reveal media bias

A young man sitting on the floor listening with large headphones on
“kevin enjoys his big headphones” by Chelsea Nesvig, via Flickr Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 2.0

It’s no secret that political campaigns think strategically about their music choices to send messages, attract the right crowd, get the crowd ready for their event, etc.  For example, the Daily Mail suggests that Donald Trump added “Born in the U.S.A.” to his pre-rally playlist as a response to Ted Cruz being born in Canada. Other candidates create Spotify lists, choose songs of resiliency, etc. for their campaigns.

What many don’t think about, however, is that media outlets can frame a story about a particular political issue or candidate by the music they choose play before or after the piece. And, since they typically utilize the music without the lyrics, it’s not always so obvious. I’ve heard media pieces lately about about particular political candidates where the exiting music is “Strange Times” by the Black Keys and “Good Feeling” by Flo Rida. Just being able to recognize the songs and know their titles,it was really obvious to me which candidate the media outlet favored.

The dangerous part of this is, it’s very subtle. It’s very possible you are being influenced by these music choices without knowing it.

So the next time you’re consuming audio media about politics or anything else, make a mental note to notice the music utilized before and after the piece. You’ll learn a lot about the particular media’s bias and recognize when they are trying to influence your opinions via music.

What you don’t know (but should) about public opinion polls

We really need to stop promoting and emphasizing these polls. They can do more harm than good but creating assumptions that shouldn’t be created on such small amounts of information.

A fake pie chart form a poll

“Poll” by Sean MacEntee, via Flickr Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 2.0Y 2.0

You see them in the news quite often, opinion polls on politics, the environment, etc. And people place great emphasis on these results. The problem is, we shouldn’t.

Sample size issues

What you don’t know is, the majority of these polls sample a very small amount of people.  For example, according to the U.S. Census Bureau 2012 population statistics, there are over 42 million people in the United States between the ages of 20 and 29.  And yet, if you look at polls published regularly by the news media, their sample size is typically less than 300 people within a similar age range.

  • On December 15, 2013, USA Today (in cooperation with Pew Research) published the results of a poll: Obama struggles with Millenials. The poll only surveyed 229 millenials.
  • The article above cited a December 2013 Wall Street Journal/NBC poll as supporting evidence. That poll surveyed only 100 millenials.

So, less than 300 people are supposed to accurately represent the opinion of 42 million individuals.

The examples above do openly say their sample size and their margins of error, but my point is, we shouldn’t be placing such huge emphasis on polls with such a small sample size.

Collection methods

The other thing that always makes me very nervous about opinion polls is their collection methods. No collection method is perfect, all of them have flaws:

  • Phone polls: Typically people polling only call home phones. There is a huge population of cell-phone only homes that are left out.
  • Story-linked web polls: If someone clicks on a story and then takes a poll related to the story, they would be considered to have “high interest” in the story, which means the poll leaves out others who are “low interest.”
  • Web polls: You have to be on the web to take them. I know that’s considered very common, but there are still populations within the U.S. who are not regularly online.
  • Interception polls (such as stopping people at a mall): These polls typically end up targeting a segment of the population that has an interest in similar activities (otherwise they wouldn’t be in the same place). Some examples of this gone wrong are asking people only at a rock concert how they feel about rock music or asking consumers when they are shopping how the consumer confidence is.

Interest level

A third key factor about polls is that someone is not typically going to take the time to take them if they aren’t interested in the topic. This immediately skews your results to those in the “high interest” or “strong opinion” categories.

Think about your own habits. What if you were in the middle of something and you got a call asking you to take a poll on a subject you could care less about. Would you take it? Probably not. But if it’s something you are very passionate about, you probably will.

In sum, we really need to stop promoting and emphasizing these polls. They can do more harm than good but creating assumptions that shouldn’t be created on such small amounts of information.

For more on this, visit:

The Polarization of America, a Communication Perspective, Part 2: We No Longer Believe Evidence and Facts

 

 

Millenials want straight-shooting authenticity

Whether or not they view an organization as authentic may have greater value than if they like your product, service, or benefits.

Three circles. First circle says "Branding is what you are." Second circle says "Marketing is What you do." Third circle says "Selling is what you say." The three circles intersect and where they do is the word "authenticity"
“How do you truly #influence customers?” by Walter Lim, Flickr Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 4.0

It’s no secret that Joe Biden is popular among Millenials and I’ve long-argued that the reason behind this is simple: Whether you love him or hate him, you know who he is (or think you do anyway) and that authenticity is something that the Millenials, those who grew  up in a world of questionable information and characters, are attracted to.

With this in mind, it’s not surprising that the Millenials are more supporting of Donald Trump than the Republican candidate closest to them in age and political stance, Marco Rubio.

According to USA Today:

What seems to be attracting younger people so far this campaign season are not policy positions or attack ads but “softer attributes” such as leadership, character, authenticity and celebrity, said John Della Volpe, director of polling at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, which has done extensive research on the attitudes of young voters.

It helps to explain why someone from an older generation – like blunt-spoken, universally known businessman Donald Trump, 69, – often appeal to the younger set., he said.

And why Millenials tend to favor Bernie Sanders.

At the same time, Millenials don’t tend to vote, which means, popular with them or not, the current set of candidates may be better off appealing to a broader voter base, who don’t always favor blunt, straight-shooting talk.

But this may change it the future. And, this tells us a lot as marketers about how, if we are targeting to Millenials now, we may want to approach them. Whether or not they view an organization as authentic may have greater value than if they like your product, service, or benefits.

Don’t trust the crowd, it’s most likely hired/manipulated

The point of adding this to the film (in my opinion) is, “Look at the political corruption and manipulation! Isn’t it shocking?”

But the reality is, this is now happening regularly in the United States as well.

A large group of people rallying
“Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” by Cliff, via Flickr Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 2.0

During the documentary “The Act of Killing” about the horrors that took place in Indonesia, one of the subjects of the film decides to run for office. He goes around handing-out business cards and the people respond with renditions of “that’s it?” because they are so used to being bribed with more. They also make a point to talk about how the political rallies are filled with paid people. The point of adding this to the film (in my opinion) is, “Look at the political corruption and manipulation! Isn’t it shocking?”

But the reality is, this is now happening regularly in the United States as well.

  • Political campaigns hire fake crowds
  • The Pentagon has been paying sports teams for patriotism
  • Photography is regularly used to make crowds seem larger than they are
  • Colleges and other organizations utilize rent-a-crowds too
  • Television shows (I know this from personal experience) sort audience members to ensure the people sitting closest to the actors are diverse and meet the demographic they want to watch the show.
  • Some people argue that police may be using riot gear to make a crowd look more violent than it is.
  • A couple of years ago, I went to a talk by a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Myself and two young men were escorted to the very front row. After we were seated, one of the young men looked at the crowd, mostly age 50+ and said to me something like “I don’t think we should be in the front row. I’d prefer some of these older folks get a better view.” I told him, while I agreed with him, we were seated there intentionally. They wanted us within camera shots to show that the younger generation was there, even if the reality was, there were only three of us out of 350.

Why is this happening?

For this, I turn to Social Norms Theory. People go along with what the social norm is, and crowds often signal social approval. Think about this as an illustration: You and a friend are walking to a concert. You’re positive you know the way to the concert. But you keep seeing tons of people, who also seem to be going to the concert walking the opposite way. What do you do? At the very least, you start to second-guess yourself. And, most likely, you will determine the crowd is most likely right, you’ve mistaken, and turn and follow them.

How do you combat this?

The best response is identification; whenever you see a crowd, just assume that it’s manipulated in some way. If it helps, do a quick mental exercise, using the examples above and others, to think through what possible ways the crowd could be manipulated to serve a purpose. This will keep you from thinking the crowd is the norm and falling into the subconscious social norms patterns of thinking the crowd is right.