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James Frayne: The power of emotion in political campaigns

Frayne JamesJames Frayne is a political and corporate communications consultant. He was previously a Director of Communications in Government and worked for a number of independent political campaigns in the UK. 

Given the extreme competence campaigns have developed on the operational side, where they have now have the ability to reach very specific groups of voters, the next logical step is for campaigns to develop greater expertise in the science of persuasion and influence. This will take campaigns into areas they have traditionally overlooked, such as neuroscience and psychology. Campaigns will investigate the process by which people make political decisions, and how they can intervene in that process to make them vote for a particular party. Just as campaigns have got used to having pollsters around, soon campaigns will start working with experts on how the mind works.

It is becoming increasingly clear that people make political decisions based primarily on emotion rather than reason. Even on issues like the economy - issues that should encourage a more objective, cost-benefit analysis about what is at stake financially for a given voter's family - within reason, people make decisions based on judgments around the perceived competence of parties, the extent to which they can be trusted, and whether or not a party's approach feels fair. People will always know when the economy is doing really badly and when parties have messed things up - think back to the ERM - but in less extraordinary times people are more likely to be moved by their emotional response to what they see and hear.

That people are moved by emotional arguments is not a new discovery. What is changing, however, is that we are starting to learn much more about how the human brain works, and therefore why messages that appeal to emotion work much better than those that appeal to reason. Messages that touch people on an emotional level cause a physical reaction in the brain that makes such messages more likely to be stored in our long term memory - and therefore more likely to affect our political outlook moving forward. Messages that are backed by powerful audiovisual stimuli are particularly likely to affect us.  

Scientists believe different types of messages affect voters in different ways. Non-surprising, partisan political messages that we agree with touch our "disposition system". This is the part of the brain that enables us simply to go about our everyday lives operating on autopilot. Such messages do not surprise us or make us think deeply. Rather, they act as reminders, putting certain messages in our head. Such messages tend to be positive and partisan and they are useful to campaigns in reminding party supporters to vote.

On the other hand, some messages affect our "surveillance system". These messages, which tend to be negative, often make us worry about something or make us scared. They make us question our world view and have the effect of making us inquisitive about issues raised, making is more likely to seek out additional information. While messages that touch our disposition system are likely to make us firmer in our views of the world and therefore surer in our vote, messages that touch our surveillance system are likely to make even partisans think again about an issue or candidate. This explains why so many campaigns turn to negative messaging when they are trying to fracture support for a political party.

How will the developing research into decision-making change campaigns? Firstly, it is likely to mean that they take a much more emotional approach to their general communications around key issues. For example, instead of selling policies like low tax on the basis of it being "good for the economy", campaigns will focus on arguments around fairness, or about why hard-working families struggling in a downturn should be able to keep more of their money. On even the most technocratic issues - pensions, transport, energy - campaigns will seek to inject messages that make people feel something.

Secondly, it will mean that campaigns become keener to enter into more controversial, high visibility stories where passions run high. Instead of clinging closely to the position of their opponents to avoid becoming distinctive on stories they fear they may not be able to control, or lining up behind the narrative of a major newspaper on a story, campaigns will see controversy as a welcome opportunity to cut through to the public and deliberately ramp up certain stories. The risk of having fingers burned will now be weighed more seriously against the pay off of actually moving the public.

Thirdly, it will mean that in some close races, British campaigns will become as negative as American ones. While positive emotions can be as powerful as negative ones in moving voters, those campaigns that doubt the ability of their leaders to project a positive vision to the world are likely to take a scorched earth policy instead of trying to run a campaign that amplifies both positive and negative messages. Such negative campaigns are likely to focus increasingly on personalities rather than just issues, and leaders are more likely to come under more serious attack.

Finally, British campaigns will finally start to take visuals more seriously. While it seems unlikely that they will have the confidence to start talking to the public directly through ads - preferring to let journalists continue to act as intermediaries - they will start to devote more time to ensuring launches, visits, speeches, and general interviews receive more planning than before. They will spend more time thinking about what image it is that they want to project to the public, and more time coming up with specific creative ideas to achieve this image projection.

Campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic do make emotional appeals all the time, and many consultants know the power of such messages. However, the increased understanding of the brain and decision-making is such that campaigns will begin to take a much more self-consciously emotional approach. 

> James' article on the importance of targeting


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