The Art of Political Messaging

By Sharlene Gandhi

I should start by saying that I have no idea what to think of the election result. It sure was not an easy choice between either candidate, and as has been pointed out multiple times, it turned out to be an election where who you voted against counted much more than who you voted for. Whilst it seems impossible to provide a holistic, no-more-questions-asked perspective on Trump’s victory, there is a side that few people have looked at.

The behind-the-scenes art of branding, imagery and iconography are so inherent to any campaign, and yet so overlooked when it comes to analysing the results. These make up the very messages that candidates have been relentlessly bombarding the voting population with for months on end, so much so that they weave their way into our subconscious and critical evaluation of these messages becomes close to impossible. Then again, it is not only what the message is that counts, but also who delivered the message and how they delivered it. So here goes, an application of basic marketing principles / consumer psychology to this crazy, seemingly inexplicable election.

Perhaps the core message is a good place to start explaining the inexplicable. When our good old friend Brexit happened, PR, Digital and Social Marketing Consultant Mike Hind wrote a brilliant piece about the use of calls to action in the Remain and Leave campaigns. The Leave campaign inspired people to take action throughout its campaign, whilst the Remain campaign was, fundamentally, about sticking to the status quo. And why bother leaving the couch when the campaign is literally shouting REMAIN at you? Now apply this same active-passive logic to Trump and Clinton’s slogan game.

Trump quite literally told his supporters, and anybody who was undecided, to ‘Make America Great Again’. People could have an impact, he said; they could create a world they wanted with their own two hands, simply by voting for him. Even tacking on ‘Again’ at the end has an impression on the subconscious, bringing a sense of nostalgia and what-once-was. The American culture was born out of a fight for independence, and this sense of protecting the past is so inherent that in may inadvertently have affected voting choices. In comparison, Clinton’s weak rhyme, ‘Stronger Together’, seems bland. Verbs really do go a long way, friends.

The slogan is just one part of a game of linguistics that each candidate plays. This election was a textbook example of post-truth politics, where factual information went out the window and was replaced by emotional appeals.

I avoided watching speeches by either candidate as much as I possibly could. Yet when I found the will to actually listen to Trump, all I heard was him saying that things were ‘so bad’. No reasoning, no back-up, no questions asked – things were just bad. And that kind of rhetoric is remarkably easy to digest, because you don’t have to think twice about it. If renowned businessman Donald Trump is saying something is bad, it must be bad.

That smoothly (and accidentally) leads me onto my final point, which is the importance of who delivers the message, otherwise known as source credibility. Donald Trump, in the eyes of most, is the symbol of a self-made man, the very epitome of what it means to be American. On the surface, he has worked his way to the top, through hard work and determination. Delve a bit deeper, however, and you see that Trump’s ‘success’ is probably largely down to a favourable family background and questionable business ethics.

But people won’t see that. They’ll see the businessman, the face of success, telling everybody that the world is fucked. And if he has so many billions of dollars in his account, he must be somewhat right. On the other hand, you have an existing politician, a Secretary of State, who knows the ins-and-outs of politics and should be a more credible candidate. But not only are government and politics so closed off to the general public, but there is also such scepticism around politicians to start with that that fundamentally nullifies her experience in comparison to Trump’s.

To sum up, a businessman did something wrong, and a politician did something wrong, but somehow the businessman is held up as a more credible source because the politician is part of the corrupt system that the businessman is claiming to be fucked. Little do people know that the businessman is very much part of the same system, if not more so ingrained into it. But that is a story for another time.

Politics is becoming an increasingly complex game, and if this election shows us anything, it is that it has become much less about tangible policies and ideas, and much more about all these heuristic cues, or mental decision-making shortcuts. Voting has become synonymous with choosing your favourite candidate from a reality TV show, which is apt for the birthplace of Hollywood.

When two opposing candidates use the same rhetoric and linguistic patterns, both talking about the working classes and ‘unity’ to win over two very different voting populations, we have a new kind of problem. Politicians are pandering towards a rhetoric that people are familiar with, regardless of their political standpoint. It’s a new kind of echo chamber / filter bubble / whatever you want to call it, that transcends the digital limits of social media. It all feeds into a culture whereby people only hear what they want to hear, and nothing else is registered. And this, finally, begs the question as to whether we can really ensure any kind of positive change, any kind of positive persuasion, if we’re only selectively listening to these expertly crafted messages.