Behaviour Change

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

Friday, February 1, 2013

Obama for America TV Ad: Troubled.



“I’m Barack Obama and I approve this message”

Female American Voice:

‘Every woman who believes decisions about our bodies and about our healthcare should be our own is troubled Mitt Romney supports overturning Roe vs. Wade. Romney backed a law that outlaws all abortion even in cases of rape and incest. And that’s not all:’ “I’ll cut off funding to plan parenthood.” ‘For women plan parenthood means lifesaving cancer screenings and family planning services, but for Mitt Romney:’ “plan parenthood, going to get rid of that.”


This advertisement sought to strengthen Barack Obama’s chances for re-election in 2012 through negative campaigning. The advertisement seeks to draw attention to some of the planned adjustments to policy were Mitt Romney to be elected. At the beginning of the video President Obama endorses the message but the narrative of the advert is not spoken by him. This matter is aimed mainly at women although it is an issue that many men feel strongly about. Due to the target demographic for this message the narrator is a female American of what sounds like around 30 years of age. This is far more effective than if it were to read by a man because for many women the subject of being pro-choice or pro-life is one heavily riddled with emotion.
‘Message fit: link the content of a message to the Pre-Existing Beliefs, Experiences, and Knowledge of the Recipient’ occurs in this advertisement. Bodily autonomy is a belief held by most and by many it is considered to be a right. The idea of choosing a state leader which would forfeited their right to bodily autonomy is alarming to most women therefore the way in which the threat to this idea is coupled with Mitt Romney's election is a most effective one.

In a study on the salience of self-schema on message evaluation Cacioppo, Petty and Sidera (1982) used 63 participants who identified themselves using trait adjectives that encompassed either a “religious” or a “legalistic” person.  The researchers then developed a set of pro-attitudinal messages that were as persuasive as each other both using weak argumentation. Half of the messages were devised so as to reflect religious perspectives on the issue being addressed (abortion, capital punishment) and the other half were designed to reflect more legalistic perspectives on the issue. Both sets of subjects were then exposed to legalistic or religious arguments supporting positions that can be deemed as acceptable as each other (capital punishment). Participants then had to evaluate how persuasive the communication was and as part of a “curriculum development project” list their thoughts.  The researchers found that subjects exposed to a schema-relevant message that was argued in a way that aligned to their own predisposition (legalistic/religious) they found it far more persuasive and were more positive about the message overall. 
This study was particularly interesting because it provided reason to extend the heuristic value of ‘self-schemata’ to encompass attitudes and suggest that the cognitive responses in persuasion are ‘subjectively rather than objectively rational’.
This is very relevant when we consider the techniques used in this advertisement to use a pre-existing belief (that of bodily autonomy ) to extend to the attitude regarding presidential candidates.

Negative campaigning is itself a very good example of the ‘Negativity effect’. This describes the way in which in general, when it comes to one making judgements about persons issues and things negative information, positive information receives less weight than negative information (Kanouse & Hanson, 1972). This was even studied within the context  of American politics by Lau in 1982 who found that regarding the US presidential candidates in the 1968, 1972, and 1980 elections negative information was more persuasive that positive information.  Very interestingly Rozin and Royzman (2001) reviewed evidence that led them to conclude that this ‘negativity bias’ is manifested in both animals and humans and that it may in fact be innate.
The entire piece of footage, from the spoken message to the use of black and white imagery when Romney is speaking, creates the impression of threat. There is also agenda setting at play. Through this advertisement the Obama campaign are also attempting to determine what issues will be discussed in the up and coming debates in which they will be taking on each other’s proposed changes to policy.  Agenda setting limits discussion to those issues raised (Plott & Levine, 1978).

Cacioppo, J. T., Petty, R. E., & Sidera, J. (1982). The effects of a salient self-schema on the evaluation of proattitudinal editorials: Top-down versus bottom up message processing. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 18,324-338.

Lau, R. (1982). Negativity in political Perception. Political Behaviour, 4,353-377.

Kanouse, D. E., & Hanson, L. R. (1972). Negativity in evaluations. In E. E. Jones, D. E. Kanouse, H. H. Kelley, R. E. Nesbitt, S. Valins, & B. Weiner(Eds.), Attribution: Perceiving the causes of behaviour (pp.47-62). Morristown, NJ: General Learning Press.

Plott, C. R., & Levine, M. E. (1978). A Model of agenda influence on committee decisions . American Economic Review, 68, 146-160.

Rozin, P., & Royzman, E. B. (2001). Negativity bias, negativity dominance, and contagion. Personality and Social Psychology review, 5,296-320.

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