Context is so important in making a choice. Context can even fool us. In the central circle illusion, both of the two central circles are the same size. The punchline is if you want to be noticed, surround yourself with smaller circles.
Dan Ariely, in the book “Predictably Irrational” describes an experiment of picking attractive people from pictures. First, Dan had students pick pictures of people that were judged equally attractive. Then, he slipped in some duplicate pictures that had been altered to look a little less attractive. The better duplicate pictures were picked 75% of the time over pictures that had no duplicates. Dan concludes that this means that you should avoid going to dating bars with a friend who is similar but slightly more attractive.
Providing decoys is used in other contexts. On menus, providing a very expensive item will sell more of the current higher priced items. In real estate, showing two similar houses makes one of those two houses more likely to be picked. Breadmakers were not selling until a second brand of breadmakers was offered. Sales people don’t ask if you want something, they ask which would you like the best.
Based on the decoy effect, I would expect Ranked Choice Voting to give similar candidates a better chance of winning. In addition, two similar candidates would expand the voter pool of people interested in that kind of candidate. In ranked choice voting, similar candidates should help each other when the votes roll to the next choice. Two candidates speaking similarly provide more chances to persuade on the importance of their positions. This is a huge change from highest-vote contest races where less than majority could win. In those races, similar candidates hurt each other because the vote was split. The practical test case of ranked choice voting is the Minneapolis Mayor’s race this year. The question is who would you consider to be similar candidates in the Minneapolis Mayor’s race?
Interestingly, Democrats have benefited from debates and internal races while Republicans are generally blaming debates and internal races for losses. I think that anytime that Republicans are not in carefully crafted marketing campaigns, they are in trouble, because normal voters do not like what Republicans really represent. In the Republican case, the decoy effect is a minor effect that does not overwhelm the dislike of the general product.
One of the ways, we get more turnout in local races, is to bring in high status political figures. However, are we then making our local political candidates look less valuable by the contrast? Should we be careful to pick candidate minders who do not outshine the candidate?
Another context idea is anchoring, where first experience sets the expectation of general market. Dan Ariely, in the book “Predictably Irrational” describes his experiment that showed that even random numbers written before a new experience will set a pattern of price expectations. Dan contends that the excessive CEO pay came when we required CEO pay to be published. Each newest highest CEO salary became the anchor for the next CEO salary negotiation to beat. I think political fundraising is the best place where the idea of anchoring could be used.
Anchoring sets expectations. The internet has been free with content so selling content is not supported. The internet anchor is free content. However look at the Mark Twain’s story of Tom Sawyer, who enticed kids to pay for doing the chore of painting the fence. Mark Twain said the story know that work is what you have to do and play is what you have to do. Starbucks also jumped the anchoring pitfall of “Dunkin Donuts” by decorating the store more as boutique, so one was anchored by boutique expectations. Anchors can be carefully chosen.
How would anchoring set expectations for a candidate? Previous candidates have set anchors. The party sets anchors. However could one use the Starbuck experience to say one is maverick or different class of candidate? I think that this is what people try to do by invoking Wellstone and using green buses.
By using branding like three piece suits, we try to choose the group that we are anchored to. Senator Jon Tester wore overalls to brand himself as populist. At a time, when congress and politicians are low in esteem, using outside branding may help with the first election. The trap is what Senator Tester faced in the second election, can one live up to the expectations?
Branding is not lying, it is just picking out the important parts of mission, character, values, issues and platform that a candidate represents. If you don’t intentionally do it, then the opposition or someone else will. It is human nature to impose a pattern on anything we seek to understand.
Republicans would like to brand Democrats with angry if they can get away with it. To a great degree, Republicans were successful in branding Al Frankin and Mike Hatch as angry. What if Mike Hatch had been branded a “fearless bulldog fighter for people”? Then everything the Republicans did with “angry” would fed into a winning brand for Mike Hatch. Al Frankin was somewhat protected by already being branded a comedian.
I think the “angry” branding is very intentional because there is a similar brand of courageous leader who speaks the truth that voters want. Voters like a forceful speaker with conviction. That is a strength of President Obama.
Notice how Republicans tried to mess with the brand of Obama. While Obama is a Christian, Republicans tried to make him Muslim. While Obama speaks well, Republicans tried to twist that into a cult figure. The birth certificate is a code for a racism messaging of “not one of us”. The Obama team took over the messaging on “Obamacare” with bumper stickers of ” I (heart) Obamacare”.
Pick the branding with care. Branding is a vulnerability, especially a false branding. If you brand a candidate as highly ethical, then one sticky case of an affair or one case of pot smoking will double the reputation harm. Frequently, sheriff candidates are branded as cowboys, which is a dangerous branding because it is also invokes the image of out-of-control shooting.
When I pick a brand I look for what naturally stands out. One candidate was a veteran and his answers frequently included some story from a military experience. A policy wonk should be branded as the person who will know the important details that make government truly work. The opponent should be branded as the kid who never did his homework. Again, the policy wonk should be a true representation because the campaign has now doubled down on policy mistakes. In the Jim Carlson for Senate campaign, we picked up on Jim’s engineering focus that debunked statements to do a series of “Mythbuster” lit drops. Voters want a candidate that debunks the myths of politics.
In every race, especially the local races ask the important questions:
- Anchor: What sets the expectations for my candidate? Can I set a different set of expectations?
- Decoy: Is there a similar candidate to my candidate who make my candidate shine in contrast? Or do we choose our branding to take advantage of weaker candidate or avoid a stronger candidate?
- Branding: How do we portray our candidate in a positive way that voters and the media immediately understand and like?
Marketing is a tool of understanding how the human brain makes decisions. We can make marketing work for the good guys.