New York, Oct 19, 2019-
US President Donald Trump has turned the ongoing impeachment inquiry over his dealings with Ukraine into his signature “all-base, all-the-time” political rallying cry, calling opposition Democrats “crazy” and unpatriotic; he is framing the US pullout from Syria as “a great day for civilisation” and is stoking cultural stereotypes framing the Middle East as a violent sandbox where its “natural” for them to “play” on blood stained streets.
With 12 months to go before the next US elections, Trump continues to cast himself as an insurgent and victim of the Washington elites. Whether this is a carefully curated strategy or Trump being Trump, strategists agree that the President’s appeal to feelings, memories and tribe instinct is potent.
Brand strategy expert Professor Stephen Hersh says how candidates manage the “balance” of how feelings change among voters when new information comes in is a key aspect of cognitive science that matters in political messaging. Hersh asks: “When people hear something, how do they remember it and what effect does that have on their views? And when people remember. what is it that they’re remembering?”
We caught up with Professor Hersh to talk about branding in the time of impeachment era politics. Below are highlights from the interview.
IANS: What makes for memorable messaging in political campaigns?
Hersh: So when we think about a candidate as a brand and all the messages that go out, we have to first ask the question what is a brand? I think we need to talk more broadly about branding as a relationship because branding is a relationship between whoever is doing the communicating and the audience.
So, one thing we can do is think in terms of the processes of memory. When people hear something, how do they remember it and what effect does that have on their views? And when people remember. What is it that they’re remembering. Cognitive psychologists will talk about the idea that memories are more than what we tend to think about in everyday life. We also remember feelings, we remember emotions, we remember situations, we remember episodes.
So, when we think about a brand, and that would include a person, and that might include a candidate, we have this collection of all these memories. And when new memories come in, when new things happen, it changes the balance of how we feel about that brand or that person. So, if I tell you, there’s this hero who jumped into the lake and pulled out a drowning child, we all tend to feel positively about that person. And then if we add a piece of information.
Well, that person turns out to be someone who was accused of a crime. Then our balance of feelings may start to change, and then we find out what the crime is. Well, it’s a poor person who was accused of stealing milk to feed the child. So the balance of feelings change again.
So, as new information comes in, it affects what we think about and how we feel about that thing. And when we’re talking about brands or candidates, there are many of them out there. So there’s constantly new information coming in, new feelings that affect the overall balance of how we feel.
IANS: Is Trump’s messaging primed to sway people to make decisions at the voting booth?
Hersh: When any politician puts out a message, the question is what’s coming across to the audience. Is it clear? Is it memorable? And it’s often said that when politicians answer a question that they may want to just start talking, and they frankly may want to bore the audience, because that’s a way to change the subject if they don’t want to take a position on something or don’t want to lose votes on either side.
So that’s one way that people deal with issues in life in general, and in politics. So if someone comes across with a very clear message with a very clear feeling, and it’s very concise, then that’s going to create an impression, and we hear people across the political spectrum saying that Trump is very good at saying what he wants to say, concisely, very simple vocabulary that’s very punchy.
IANS: When Trump is asked about Ukraine and Syria and the Kurds and the impeachment enquiry, he casts he fight in simpler terms – a battle between him and the “swamp”. What does that do for the audience?
Hersh: I remember him (Trump) saying recently that something he said was perfect. So, it’s a thought that something was correct was well handled, and it’s a feeling when something is perfect. It has positive connotations. So, when he puts you like that, it gets an idea across.
Now, we also have to think on another dimension, the cultural dimension. Because in our society, there will be figures that whole the culture together, there will be shared ideas and beliefs, there will be systems of those beliefs that kind of hang together in terms of way of thinking about the world. So an entire society like the US will have a culture that sort of cuts across the entire country but then there are groups in the culture.
There are sub groups and political parties are cultural groups. And so, two political groups will have different ideas and beliefs and values associated with those beliefs and those will add up to a way of viewing the world. And so, when a candidate is talking to a group, they’re speaking mostly to the political party or group that is their fan base and those people will receive messages one way and the other group will receive them in another way.
The same information, the same words are coming across but people will interpret them differently based on what they think about and based on how they view the world in general. And there’s a kind of team spirit that if you feel like you’re an avid member of this group, then you’re kind of rooting for that group and when you hear messages which are in tune, you start believing them.
IANS: What about the wall along the southern border? That seems to be the permanent lightning rod in any Trump rally…
Hersh: Well, I think that’s the cultural group. That’s an issue that really resonates with their belief system and their values and the whole package of what happens inside a cultural group.
And then when a group sees that everybody else in the group is feeling this way, that’s reinforcement for the feeling. And so that’s really a matter of the relationship with the audience and which audience you are talking to, what animates them and what kind of message is going to be well received.