This article outlines the history, importance, risks and opportunities of making an emotional connection in your messaging.
From Obama’s “Hope and Change” to Trump's “Make America Great Again”, emotion has been the core element of their successful messaging. Emotions can be used to make a connection with voters, more powerfully than rational arguments can alone. Social media has made emotion even more important in messaging. How do you use emotions to create change?
Politics is an emotional business and politicians who appeal to the hearts of voters generally defeat those who appeal to their heads. This does not mean that you should abandon the intellectual basis of your party or candidacy, or that you should underestimate the intelligence of the voter, or negate the facts. But it means that you must find a way to tie your campaign message to the concerns of your voters and make it clear - make them feel - that you understand the problems they face every day.
Once your campaign determines what message will persuade your target voters to vote for your party, then you must repeat that same message at every opportunity. While you will be living and breathing your campaign and may get tired of repeating the same message, most voters are not paying very much attention to politics and will only hear your message a few times. For your message to register with the voters, they have to hear the same message many times in many different ways.
‘The Political Brain’ by Drew Westen, professor of psychiatry and psychology, was published a year before Barack Obama became President of the USA. In this book, Westen looks at decades of political narratives by the Republican and Democratic contenders for the presidency. He showcases how the progressive candidates tended to communicate rational arguments to the voter, whereas the Republicans communicated emotional narratives and identity cues. An ‘identity cue’ being something as banal as talking about the type of house and city you grew up in — ‘see, I am just like you.’
An example Westen gives is the famous ‘Morning in America’ ad that played a big role in Ronald Reagan’s re-election in 1984. This short ad (1 min long) gives some convincing (rational) economic arguments that things are going well, strengthened by a melodramatic (emotional) tune and story of people getting married, American flags hoisted, and the elderly smiling. ‘America is back to how it used to be, and all of us are smiling, healthy and getting married.’
(American) exceptions to the rule were Bill Clinton and, later, Barack Obama. These progressives embraced the need to put the emotional desire, instead of the rational argument, central. ‘Hope’ is not a rational argument to be elected but the explicit expression of a desire that many had. Just like ‘Change.’
What Westen teaches us is that what tends to drive people are their wishes, fears and values. In politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins. Logic plays only a supporting role. Just look back at all the progressive, hopeful videos that went viral in the last ten years: in 99% of the cases, emotion was front and centre. Because that’s how our brain works, that’s what drives us.
A video does not go viral simply because it’s well made, a speech does not reverberate simply because of good use of the rule of three. They work well because they touch us and give hardly noticeable cues that the message is relevant to you. Any political message, be it a speech or a tweet, benefits from making an emotional connection with the listener.
By speaking about the pains, fears, hopes and dreams of those voters, the lives they live and the lives they want themselves and their kids to have, the anger they feel when they hear a racist on the radio and the hope they see when kids are marching for a better future by speaking to those experiences and emotions, people can connect to a politician.
Social media has exacerbated the influence of emotion on what political message resonates among voters. First, social media has created a cheap alternative to reach the masses that does not require the filter (and thus the sanitised, rational analysis) of a journalist. Second, the highly paid experts in Silicon Valley are doing everything to keep you on their platforms as long as possible: and that means rewarding content that has a fast and strong emotional response.
There is a reason why Facebook changed from the “Like” button to "Love", "Haha", "Wow", "Sad", and "Angry.” Because they are emotions. And emotions are what make people click, read, watch and share.
Embrace the fact that we’re emotional human beings. Try to find an angle in your narrative that sparks emotions like hope, love, laugh and use anger only with good reason.
In the spirit of ‘The Political Brain:’ put the fears, desires and wishes of your audience central. One way of doing this is looking at the lives of your audience, and where — in their lives — your message becomes relevant. Use that as an angle at which you tell your story.
It is chaotic, fast-moving world - especially online and especially with many crises around us - and we’re all looking for guidance: what is happening and what should we do or how should we feel about it? Many of our fears, desires and wishes are temporal: rooted in what’s happening in our worlds this year, this week, today. It is not necessary to jump into current affairs in order to go viral, but it offers a very immediate way to feel relevant to your audience. Find an angle, a concern, in current affairs to which you can add your value-driven ‘what we should do or how should we feel about it’ answer.
In the Obama ‘08 campaign - “Hope, Change” - the messaging was based heavily on emotions. The anger and disillusionment with Bush conservatism and militarism and the collapsing financial industry (banks, mortgages) transformed into ‘hope’, through the promise of ‘change.’
There was more to it than just those two words. In Obama’s widely praised longer speeches, he did not generally dive deep into the nuts and bolts of policies and analyses. He gave us narratives about the ‘character’ of the country and the individual, and how through struggle and empathy Americans had managed to bring both the best out of their national and individual character. In other words, he was connecting Americans to a sense of shared self.
Hope and change based messaging is not an American invention. There have been numerous similar examples, including the Greens in many countries who successfully told an emotionally resonating story of hope and change. For example, ‘Time for change’ was the slogan for the Dutch Greens in 2017. ‘Vote with hope’ was one of their most viral videos during that campaign.
Hope is the warm, positive and enticing answer to the desire for change.
In a Ted Talk, Greta Thunberg stated:
“We need hope, of course we do. But the one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then, and only then, hope will come.”
In many ways, recent years have made it harder to embrace hope. Inequalities have been rising to levels not seen in a century, our CO2 budget is quickly depleting and sexism, racism, and cronyism are fueling powerful, intimidating and angry political forces. So, Thunberg has a point: hope without action, power, and change is not enough.
Our times are urgent and our political fights fundamental. Increasingly, there is reason to be angry. Not the anger towards those less powerful and privileged than we are, but the anger towards those with power that fail to be responsible. Increasingly, there is reason to demand action.
As tensions rise and anger at injustice increases among many groups of society, perhaps the Greens can be the political vehicle that accepts and understands anger over the present and fear for the future and helps drive it towards bold action. Urgent problems demand urgent action.
The book “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman sent shockwaves through the world of marketing when it came out in 2011. The book, an international bestseller, offers a critique of the capacity of humans to make judgements. We think we’re rational beings. But according to Kahneman, we aren’t.
When faced with (seemingly) simple questions, we tend to answer fast. Kahneman calls this ‘System 1’ thinking. When we realise a puzzle is actually too hard to solve in a split second, our slow and smart ‘System 2’ brain is fired up. Since our brain just wants to be lazy and fast, most of our decisions are made on autopilot.
That autopilot is easily fooled, tricked and wrong. Our ‘system 1’ is not only fast and automatic. We use it frequently, it’s emotional, it builds on stereotypes and is unconscious. Thus if you want to convince a person in our low-attention-span-inducing fast-moving social media, it increasingly makes sense to embrace emotion.
The newest trend in digital political campaigning is therefore often as simple as embracing, enforcing and sometimes even creating cliches. Simply repeating, again and again, that the opponent is [weak] on [important topic] and they themselves are [strong] on [important topic] is a campaign tactic.
There are three ways you can (ethically) use this knowledge to your benefit:
Be aware of the underlying frames. Extreme right and centre-right parties use a lot of tropes in their messaging, where they make use of or create cliches and stereotypes around your party(leader) and your voters. These cliches and stereotypes might sound ridiculous to you, but for most people, using their ‘system 1’ brain, they may work. So be aware of the bullshit and counter it by reframing topics that are meaningful to your goals
Build or break with cliches around your leader/party. When Bernie Sanders started his presidential run, he was said to be ‘too old and frail’ to be fit for president. So immediately (social) media were flooded with a video of Bernie Sanders running from place A to B. They were trying to break with a cliche. Just as, on the other end, Trump was trying to build the cliche that Clinton was a corrupt criminal by always talking about ‘crooked Hillary.’ Cliches, such as “Greens are tree huggers” are easily built, and have pervasive effects on how voters perceive you. Take cliches seriously, and don’t let them define you.
Acquire issue ownership through repetition. If voters always hear your party leader or see your party logo when reading about ‘(fighting) corruption’, it is likely that voters will connect that issue to you. See something often enough and you might start to believe it. Hear something repeated over and over again and you may think it is important. Repetition is great for branding yourself as issue owner.
Sadly, the more we are polarised, the better polarising — us-versus-them — messaging works. And the more politics becomes a question of identity, the more important identity becomes for campaigns. Polarisation is not new, and our politics and discourse has been infused by it.
Emotions around our identities are strong. If I am, or feel, that a political force does not recognize my social value based on my sexuality, class, colour, religion, gender (and other intersecting identities), then I may want to fight back to (re)claim my rights and respect, my safety and opportunity. However ‘identity politics’ can become extreme when it turns into racism, sexism, fascism and nationalism. But preserving and protecting you and yours (i.e. an identity group) is a human trait.
In some ways, politics is simply about representation. And people are looking for a leader to represent their groups. To speak up when other groups want to degrade or bully us or strip us from our rights. To stand on the barricades to fight for a future we hope we - our group - will live in. It is just that, in comparison to much of our opposition, we don’t want to achieve it at the expense of others, especially those with less privilege and opportunity. In many cases however, representation offers a communal strive for a better life.
The best way to convince people is to touch their emotions and values instead of rational argumentation alone. Hope and anger are defining emotions in our current political landscape. Social media increasingly rewards emotional content so that we stay addicted to their platforms. Marketers increasingly play into our reptilian emotion based triggers with easily digestible propaganda aimed to put cliches into our heads or build upon stereotypes we may already have.
Last updated: June 2022