Print Politics

Using Election Campaign Advertising to Connect

Political printing creates valuable emotional bonds with voters.

The other day, I came across an interesting little tidbit about the influence of political printing and other ads in the outcome of a campaign. It seems that market research done by Harris Interactive in 2004 found that voting results can be better predicted by how voters feel about election campaign advertising than about how they respond to polls asking them to pick the candidate they will vote for.

Why, I wonder, do voters change their minds when they come right down to that moment in the booth? The tidbit of interest, found at goes on to explain that the issue is engagement. Voters don't end up choosing who they think is best for the job, but the candidate with whom they have the strongest emotional connection.

This connection doesn't have to be positive, necessarily. It just has to be consistent. A candidate that positions him or herself as a good guy begins to forge positive connections with voters, but if that candidate suddenly changes tracks and begins mudslinging or taking hardline positions, those connections are severed, and it will be more difficult to reestablish new emotional connections with different political printing and advertising before election day.

AdAge describes how John Kerry sabotaged himself in the 2004 election by running attack campaigns against George Bush during the last six weeks of the election. Because Kerry had previously positioned himself as a 'good guy' the ads turned voters off, severing their positive emotional connection with Kerry. Conversely, Bush was able to run attack ads in 2004 without negative repercussions because he already had that kind of emotional relationship with voters.

The lesson within this market research is that consistency is key. Planning a political printing and advertising campaign before election season starts, and sticking to it throughout the course of the campaign, is necessary when it comes to forming a solid emotional connection. Whether this connection is based on friendly or aggressive feelings may not be as important as the strength of the feelings, because it seems to be this powerful feeling that ultimately garners the majority of votes.

Many campaigns flounder when election consultants and advertisers begin to panic in the last weeks before Election Day. In scrambling to develop a tactic to get those last few points on the board, campaigns may switch emotional tracks and wind up hurting their chances more than helping them.

Although it's easy to think that this psychological drama only happens in TV and internet advertising, it's crucial not to forget the emotional tones and connections developed through political print advertising. Print design – through colors, fonts, tonality, grid balance, and other factors – sends an emotional message, and changing campaign designs will change how voters feel about a candidate.

A great example of this is the McCain campaign, whose political print designs began with a very dark, rigid, almost militaristic style. This design evoked a complex emotional connection of both aggression and protection. However, probably realizing that the design was a bit TOO grim for many on-the-fence voters, the McCain campaign quickly lost its nerve and added color to the design. After this change, much of McCain's political printing became a regular riot of color. Now voters were supposed to feel emotions of aggression, protection, and warm fuzzies? Not likely. It's been all downhill for McCain ever since.

Since the democratic frontrunners came into this election season with a warm, friendly, let's-all-hold-hands-and-do-this-like-civilized-human-beings attitude, I predict that the last few weeks of campaigning will see at least one or two candidates turn to the dark side of political printing and other forms of advertising in order to garner some spotlight action.

If Hillary starts mudslinging, the result may not be disastrous. Although she's the likely winner of the Democratic vote, she's not super-duper likable, not Obama likable, at any rate. Deep down, we all have a feeling that she's a real Queen Bee, so if her campaign starts biting some heads off, it might actually solidify voter confidence in her strength.

Obama, on the other hand, would probably not do well running an attack campaign. Obama's got two huge things going for him: 1 – He's super-dee-duper likable, and 2 – He makes you believe that the world can be a better place. If he starts mudslinging, these very powerful but delicate emotional connections will be severed, and voters, convinced at last that he is “just like everyone else,” will feel comfortable settling for Hillary.

The same is true for John Edwards. The slogans that cover his political printing read “The Campaign to Change America.” In this slogan, a very powerful emotional connection is created. “I care,” the slogan seems to say, “I care more about America (that's you!) than I do about winning this election.”

If Edwards goes on the attack and starts trash-talking his competition, the ugly truth of where his priorities really lie will become all too apparent, and all those who would have voted for a reluctant ruler will cast their vote, again, with the safest option: Hillary.

So campaigns large and small, beware! As you set out on that dusty election trail, choose the emotional connections you will forge, and stick with them. Reinforce and nurture them. If you're going to be the loving parent, be the loving parent. If you're going to be the iron-fisted warlord, then be that warlord. If you're going to be the even-keeled peacemaker – put away the gloves. And from the colors and fonts on your political printing, to the tone and setting of your TV ads, make your message consistent. All we, as voters, want is someone we can rely on.


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