Perception Management and Subliminal Perception: How Political Parties Market Their Ideas
Perhaps no institutions engage in perception management more than do American political campaigns. They not only seek to manipulate electorate perceptions during the campaigns proper, but posture in preparation for each next one as soon as the last one ends. In the process they often reach into frontiers of subliminal communication. That does not mean they hide secret messages between frames in video — though that has been done — as much as they layer implicit messages with more attention grabbing explicit messages.
In the 2000 campaign controversy erupted over a Bush ad that flashed the word “RATS” on the screen. Related to Al Gore, it flashed on for 1/30th of a second. While the Bush team called it non-intentional, the fact remains that words do not get on screens by accident (Weinberger & Westen, 2008). In the 2008 campaign Mike Huckabee posed before an object that was not really a cross, but resembled one and registered as one in audience perception, suggesting he was the Christian candidate. The McCain campaign featured ominous music and dialogue, noting all the good things said about then candidate Obama, even references to him as “The One” to suggest to some viewers he might be the Anti-Christ (Sawyer & Snow, 2000)
During the 2012 primaries the Obama campaign ran an ad that used a more effective technique. People think nothing of a picture of politician in an airport with a plane behind them. The ad in question showed Gov. Mitt Romney on the runway. Focus on the governor, while audio drew additional attention, meant viewers may not have immediately noticed the word on the plane. It said, “Trump”, reinforcing an Obama campaign message about class privilege, and reminding the electorate of multi-millionaire Romney’s ties to Donald Trump.
More often than simply juxtaposing images to amplify a silent message, campaigns manipulate voter responses by manipulating mood. On a direct level positive moods can enable critical thinking and make people more amenable to facts and less likely to respond with knee-jerk emotions. They allow broader world views in making judgments. Negative moods narrow focus and make people less amenable to outside information (Baumann & Kuhl, 2002).
This is where negative and positive ads come into play. That basic finding about common moods enabling critical thinking gets less simple as more complex relationships get involved. A positive mood augments response to cues related to both cues of trust and mistrust for candidates from opposing parties (Lount, 2010). Positive moods can increase trust, but someone in a positive mood is more likely to accept evidence that engenders distrust in a third party while in a positive mood.
Consider how these apply to any conventions, and the recent ones in particular. When a convention audience — and hopefully an associated TV audience — is in a positive mood, they are more likely to accept negative information leading them to distrust the opposing candidate. The challenge in this approach is that once any negativity enters into the discussion, the mood becomes more negative as well. Furthermore, someone offering negative information engenders negativity toward himself or herself.
The convention is all about creating a positive mood. That should make people more amenable to rational thinking, but in the Republican 2012 convention we saw this good mood spiral into a tidal wave of negativity. While many within the party rejoiced and cheered at the events, and particularly at Clint Eastwood’s rambling diatribe against the Democratic President, others watched appalled. They created a great positive mood engendering trust among themselves, but in their manner of criticizing the opposition they destroyed the initial negative mood, diminishing the effectiveness of positivity, and primarily reinforcing only their base.
Clearly a productive positivity as a subliminal tool involve more than enthusing people about their party’s platform or their candidate. In a convention when it’s time to criticize the other side it can neither diminish the existing positive mood nor draw negativity toward a party’s own candidate. Achieving this balance in a convention can determine the fate of the rest of a campaign.
That is why having President Bill Clinton deliver the nominating speech in the 2012 Democratic Convention was genius level perception management. This is not supporting one candidate over another, just recognizing the best use of subliminal dynamics in perception management. At present Clinton produces such positive feelings among the electorate that even his opponents have evoked him in efforts to separate him from President Obama in the electorate’s mind.
By selecting Clinton for the speech, Democrats made those Republican efforts at perception management backfire. Clinton already had the endorsement, so to speak, of the other side. He has already shown himself skilled at making an audience feel good, and even at delivering negative comments without diminishing that mood. The final caveat in their technique is that he, and not President Obama, delivered the attacks on the opposition. That gives them a chance to avoid ill will toward their candidate for negativity, even as the whole audience — not just their loyalists — are more likely to distrust the opposition, having heard the negative information while in a positive mood.