Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Liberal Democrats’ Irony

Politics is a ubiquitous component to the society in which we live. A multifaceted field notorious for democracy, controversy, power and scandal; there is never a dull moment in the war of words. But what underlies everything within this inscrutable world? Votes: getting people to say ‘yes’. Ultimately, this is a system defined by persuasion.

Amidst fierce competition, the relentless quest of political parties to grapple for public endorsement has evolved into more elaborate campaigning. John Cleese’s 1997 Liberal Democrats’ party political broadcast was one of the first to branch away from the infamously boring template that many of us have become too accustomed to. Instead of blurting the standard party lines, in this ad the Liberal Democrats candidly address their root problem: noone thinks they actually stand a chance in an election! The Lib Dems provided us with a refreshingly, and surprisingly, entertaining broadcast, contrasting to the dreary others. Empirical research has found that surprising content of adverts can capture the much-sought-after attention of people more than neutral ones, which ultimately leads to a greater opportunity for persuasion (Petty et al., 2001; Teixiera, 2012). Moreover, with looming election days, the public plays victim to the incessant plummeting of political propaganda. Within the crowded marketplace, there are various opportunities for comparison between campaigns. This coincides with the contrast principle: the positive qualities of this ad will seem even more appealing when compared to the other monotonous and lackluster advertisements.

Apart from the state-of-the-art graphics used in the advert, what is it about the message that is so persuasive? Perhaps, Cleese’s popularity and association with the party broadens the appeal and voter base – in any case, people are more likely to comply with the requests of someone they like compared to someone they do not. It could be argued that people employ a shortcut-judgment heuristic to obey Cleese’s argument: stereotyped as a middle-class-seeming chap, maybe with more expertise on the political minefield than our humble selves and so, with hints of informational social influence, assume that his superior knowledge must be right and so consequently, we will be more likely to hurry along to the polling station. In an ambiguous situation, such as the political voting scene, people look to others to determine what is correct and backed up with convincing stats that 50% of people prefer Liberal Democrat policies (of course ignoring politician’s stereotypical liberal usage of statistics); this provides a social proof explanation to many who may be unsure who to vote (Lun et al., 2007).

Despite the masterful persuasive message, the Liberal Democrats did not win office in the 1997 elections (surprise, surprise) due to Blair’s landslide domination. However, perhaps no matter how persuasive the advert is, there is a limit to its respective effectiveness on attitude change. Some psychologists argue that political attitude is determined by more stable variables, such as personality, parents’ political tendencies and parenting style (Adorno et al., 1950; Fraley et al., 2012). Therefore, political opinions could have a more innate predisposition, forming a sense of deterministic inevitability, deeming much of the campaigning work done pointless. Nevertheless, Ashdown did manage to win back 46 seats in ’97, relatively good wins for the then minority parties, growing the independent solidarity. Who would have thought that just 13 years later the Lib Dems would be selling their soul to form a cop-out-coalition with the Tories? Perhaps it is time to blame John Cleese…


Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswick, E., Levinson, D. J., & Sanford, R. N. (1950). The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper 8c Row.

Fraley, R., Griffin, B., Belsky, J., & Roisman, G. (2012). Developmental antecedents of political ideology: A longitudinal investigation from birth to age 18 years. Psychological Science, 23(11), 1425-1431.

Lun, J., Sinclair, S., Whitchurch, E. R., & Glenn, C. (2007). (Why) do I think what you think? Epistemic social tuning and implicit prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 957-972.

Petty, R. E., Fleming, M. A., Priester, J. R., & Feinstein, A. H. (2001). Individual Versus Group Interest Violation: Surprise as a Determinant of Argument Scrutiny and Persuasion. Social Cognition, 19(4), 418-442.

Teixiera, T. (2012). The new science of viral ads. Harvard Business Review, 90(3), 20-25.

By Mhairi Hay

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