Cognitive Strategies in Political Communication


Everybody knows, what everybody wants: a high turnout in the UK elections. And all that it took was a TV debate between leaders of the three parties; The conservative on the right, labour on the left and somewhere in between the element of Change, Hope and Unity. But this time it was not the Internet but TV that makes the election a success for everybody. A live TV debate, like the one in 2010, was never done in the nation where the industrial Revolution first took shape. In comparison, the first live TV debate in the US was in 1960. 50 years after Obama’s ancestors learned to utilize this new tool for the purpose of political communication, the old world is realizing its potential to mobilize a somewhat indifferent public. But did they use it right? And can the Obama Campaign be replicated in Europe?
We honestly don’t know this yet. It has not been tried. But we know what does not work; Issues! No candidate will win with issues. They are to complicated to communicate and to boring to discuss. Some issues are only relevant to a small target group others are irrelevant for another. Everybody has to try this himself for a moment. It is really hard. Try to do an research on a topic like tax reform or public spending. I admit that some people might think its exciting and motivating. But most people agree that it sounds rather boring and dry. Maybe its because we made it in the past sound boring and dry. One could make this little thought experiment for a moment. Lets imagine that such a research task is charged with positive emotions like joy and excitement. Would such emotions make us want to do them more? Maybe, but it would involve the same tasks and methods like it does in the real world. In our imagination we can associate these tasks with a positive vibe but it would not make them objectively more fun. So, whatever we think we feel is mainly the result of emotional conditioning in a social and cultural setting. And it says nothing about the fruit earned by the labour pursuit. No political campaign adviser would tell his client that issues are what the public demands. Motive researchers present opinion poll after one another concluding that “values” are what people want. That these polls are hardly criticized in the press is not surprising. There is some truth in them, namely that it is cost effective to activate the right emotional buttons to stimulate the desired response. It is plainly cheaper, the cost per vote decreases immensely when pushing the emotional button. When the campaign is a head race instead of a ‘programmed winner’ rushes in a short election campaign a landslide victory. Obama has proven this successfully. There are also the opposite examples. Not successful was the elections for the European Parliament. Their focus on issues is almost pathetic given the additional constraints campaigns on european level suffer. For example language and the little prerequisite knowledge of EU institutions in general. But also the public opinion that considers the EU institutions irrelevant to their daily life.

What does work is a clear focus on the candidate’s values. They are easy to communicate and everybody can relate to them quiet naturally. They mean something to people and they are quiet literally simply pretty. But lets go back now to the UK elections. The campaign turned around during the live TV debate when all major Newspapers (from left to right: Daily Mirror, The Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Daily Express, The SUN, The Times, Daily Mail) featured Nick Clegg in Obama style on their front pages. Not the internet, not social networks, youtube, facebook and all that made Obama the president in 2008, but the TV image that showed millions of people in the UK for the first time since the late 70s, a third candidate captivated also the print industry.

We have to face it, right now and right here. Democracy is like a supermarket. And your votes are your Pounds. And whoever will win tonight, it is payed by the Brits. And they can say thank you BBC. It was a real pleasure to remind us that public broadcasting is not loosing its capacity to mobilize and activate in the name of Hope, Unity and Peace.

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