Friday, March 05, 2004

Bush's Political Ads - why they work

Apparently George Bush's new political ads are causing some controversy. Many of us have already seen the ads. They seem fairly tasteful, but there are depictions of a piece of the twin towers, and other images reminiscent of 9/11/01. The Bush campaign people are claiming that it is a big part of what defined his presidency, so it is natural and expected that some of it be shown to remind people that he lead the country thorough that. The Democrats feel that it is inappropriate and insensitive to exploit this tragedy for political gain.

Now, every psychologist who studied at all in college is aware of a few interesting experimental results in psychology. Here is a description of one of these famous experiments: Psychologists show a number of subjects a film and ask them to answer a number of questions about their country, religion and the like. Then we asses their answers for attitudes toward these institutions. When the film that was shown was about death, and contained scenes that evoked images of death, the subjects were much more likely to exhibit and profess feelings of xenophobia, patriotism, groupishness, and the like. In other words, it is a demonstrated psychological fact that thinking about death triggers feelings of national pride and patriotism, and general rallying around the flag. This is well studied. Any good intro book on psychology will explain this in greater detail.

Psychologically astute (read: successful) advertisers know this too.

They also know that Bush is associated with war, patriotism, strength, and nationalism. He is the right-wing candidate. The right is always associated with stronger ties to nationalism.

It follows that they also realize that making people think of death, will make them think of a strong leader, and will make people crave stability. It will make people feel the need for a familiar government, ie, not changing president.

(An additional illustration of all this might be the sudden spontaneous surge of patriotism and immediate flag waving in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th tragedy. Death there made us all be patriotic and love Bush, as polls then showed.)

So, while I am not morally opposed to the ads, (it's still a free country, after all) I do think that people should realize how they are manipulated by advertising each and every day of their lives. (You may also remember that Bush had another advertising scandal in his first campaign with the "rats" frames and the subliminal messages.)Advertisers are not at all above manipulating you in any way they can get away with. A good education about the media and your own psychology will go a long way toward immunizing you from the media's pernicious influence.

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