Explaining the Election

December 6, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the view of many conservative journalists and bloggers, Obama won the election because his campaign was strategically canny – clever, even deceptive, and focused so as to maximize his electoral count. Some Republicans, maybe half of them, have another explanation: ACORN stole the election for Obama. That one seems less persuasive since ACORN hasn’t existed for a couple of years. (The HufPo story on that poll is here.)

But how about this wild guess: Obama won because his policies were favored by a majority of the people.
Sixty-five percent of voters back increased taxes for Americans making more than $250,000 a year, while 31 percent oppose, according to a Quinnipiac University poll . . .

Voters overwhelmingly oppose cutting Medicaid spending, 70-25 percent. Voters surveyed also oppose gradually raising the Medicare eligibility age, 51-44 percent, and don’t support cuts to military spending by a margin of 55-41 percent. Those surveyed also said a “no-taxes” pledge isn’t a good idea, 85-10 percent.  [From Politico.]

SNAP Judgment

December 5, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Mayor Booker’s decision to go on the SNAP diet has gotten a lot of coverage in the press.  His hometown paper, the Star-Ledger, had him on the front page.

If this is really what the mayor bought with his food stamps, there’s one stereotype he’s not putting to rest – the Coastal elitist.  Yes, he’s got the Goya garbanzos and frijoles, and he’s got the yams.

But organic extra virgin olive oil?  Really, Cory. 

Accentuating the Negative

December 5, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross-posted in slightly edited form at Sociological Images

Try not to think about an Oldsmobile. 

I’ve been thinking about Oldsmobile.  I mentioned it in passing in the previous post, and since then I’ve been wondering about “Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile” – the brand’s swan song.  Matthew Yglesias at Slate thinks that the campaign alienated the regular customers, the ones who bought a new Olds every few years, saying to them in effect, “You’re a geezer, an Oldster, and have been for a while – sans youth, sans sex, sans taste, sans everything except your crummy car.” 

The tag that completed the famous set-up line was, “The new generation of Olds.”
The word “generation” was key. If you recall, each commercial featured a celebrity and one of his or her offspring. This is why the campaign is so damn silly.
That’s from the ad man who claims to have created that tag.  He also has some war stories from the shoots, including one about William Shatner’s daughter’s nipples (here).  But I digress.

The target of the campaign was to attract young car buyers, but it missed badly.  Why?  My guess is the futility of negation.  Saying what something is not doesn’t give people a clear picture of what that something actually is.  But that’s not the problem here.  The message was clear, especially with that tag about generations.

The problem is that direct negation can reinforce the idea you are trying to deny – as in the paradoxical command to not think about an elephant. “I am not a crook,” said Richard Nixon in his televised address about Watergate.  It’s his most remembered line, and when he spoke it, the TV screen might as well have had an overlay flashing the words “Game Over.”

If the denial contradicts general perceptions (i.e., the brand), people might not hear it at all, or worse, they might hear the opposite.  Ever since fact-checking went public in a big way a few years ago, we’ve seen corrections to the lies that politicians have told about one another.  But as
Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler have shown (here), corrections can boomerang, especially when they clash with ideas the reader already has.
Can these false or unsubstantiated beliefs about politics be corrected? . . . Results indicate that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group. We also document several instances of a “backfire effect” in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.

So what’s a struggling car company to do about its doddering demographics?  They can’t go back to 1905 and “Come away with me Lucille.”* 

Unfortunately, the hip hop dudes were walking to their Escalades, Beamers, and Lambos.  Not a Cutlass to be seen.

 Maybe putting the idea into the youth idiom of the day (the late 1980s) would have worked:
Your father’s Oldsmobile . . . . NOT!
(Now you know why I never went into advertising.)

* Times change, cars change, language changes.  This pretty waltz from 1905 concludes with lines that by mid-century would have seemed amusingly suggestive:
You can go as far as you like with me
 In my merry Oldsmobile.
You can hear that line in the opening of this video (after the 15-second intro). To sing along karaoke style, fast forward to about 3:25.

“Lincoln” and Party Images

December 3, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

I saw “Lincoln” over the weekend.  The period-piece aspects of the movie were easy to slip into – the clothes and speech, the hair style and whiskers – except for one.  It was the Republicans who wanted to end slavery; the Democrats were the party of the racists.  I couldn’t get today’s party images out of my mind.  Yet this wasn’t some bizarro world.  It was US history.

Brand images are sticky.  In the late 20th century, Oldsmobile tried to shed its codger image.  “Not your father’s Oldsmobile,” they said.   You don’t see that ad anymore.  You don’t see any Oldsmobile ads at all these days.  Or Oldsmobiles.  Efforts to change the brand don’t always go well.

Some Republicans are now calling for the party to change its image – “not your rich white uncle’s GOP.”  John Sides at WaPo’s Wonkblog  has discouraging data for those hopeful Republicans.  In the 1950s, the public saw the GOP as the party for the rich.  
Consider this poll question: “When you think of people who are Republicans, what type of person comes to mind?”   . . .  31 percent picked words like “wealthy” and “business executive” while only 6 percent chose “working class” and its kindred. 
Sixty years later, that image has not changed.  In a 2012 poll
most (54 percent) said that the Republicans were better for Wall Street; only 13 percent said this of Democrats. 
In the 1860s, the Republicans were the party of civil rights.  With help from strategists like Richard Nixon and Lee Atwater,* they managed to succeed in changing that image, but it took a century.  It seems a bit optimistic of conservatives to think that they will lose the Mr. Moneybags image in a few short years.

*The link will take you to an audio of the famous 1981 Atwater interview where he discusses the strategy of finding issues that, while not explicitly about race, still attract anti-Black voters.  In the good old days, says Atwater, you could simply say, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.”    Nowadays, you have to be more creative.