Why Clinton’s Slogans Failed (Hard)
In my last two posts we examined two examples of successful persuasion through the lens of the 2016 Presidential Election. The first post Trump’s Self-Interruptions: a Persuasion Tactic analyzed Donald Trump’s use of a little-known psychological phenomenon, the Zeigarnik Effect, to win his first Presidential Debate against Hillary Clinton. The second post Trump’s Counter-Punch: A Persuasion Tactic examined the behavioral science behind “Lyin’ Ted” and “Crooked Hillary,” Trump’s notorious monikers for Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton, to explain why they were so effective.
By way of contrast, this post will examine two instances of unsuccessful attempts at persuasion, as well as the principles of behavioral science that underlie their failure, and ways you can avoid the same pitfalls in your own efforts to persuade. For the sake of thematic consistency — and because we’re all at least somewhat familiar with them — I’ll use examples from Hillary Clinton’s losing 2016 Presidential campaign. Specifically, her slogans “Love Trumps Hate” and “I’m With Her.”
1. Love Trumps Hate
Donald Trump was confirmed as the Republican nominee on July 20, 2016. Shortly thereafter, the Clinton campaign unveiled a new attack slogan: “Love Trumps Hate.” At first glean “Love Trumps Hate” appears to be very powerful. It cleverly correlates the opposing candidate’s surname (Trump) with hate, while also conveying Clinton’s core message of inclusiveness (Love). However, as I’ve pointed out in my previous posts, being clever and being persuasive aren’t necessarily the same thing. And on some occasions they’re actually diametrically opposed. Unfortunately for Clinton, that was precisely the case with “Love Trumps Hate”: although the slogan was cute, and a clever play on words, it was utterly unpersuasive.
Why? Among many other reasons, including the fact that it gave Trump free press, “Love Trumps Hate” failed because of the principle of primacy. Primacy maintains that we as humans instinctively tend to put more value on the beginning of a statement or list than the middle. In fact, the effect is so powerful that test participants rated a hypothetical person more favorably when given description A (below) compared to description B:
- A: Steve is smart, diligent, critical, impulsive, and jealous
- B: Steve is jealous, impulsive, critical, diligent, and smart
As you can see, the traits listed are exactly the same. The only difference is the order in which they’re presented. When a negative trait appeared first, the participants rated Steve less favorably. Conversely, when a positive trait appeared first the participants rated Steve more favorably. Unbelievable but true. And this is essentially the problem with “Love Trumps Hate.” Instead of pairing “Trump” with “Hate,” the slogan actually pairs “Trump” with the first word in the slogan: “Love.” That means the reader is left with the complete opposite message of what Clinton wanted to convey: “Love Trump.”
So, how can you avoid this pitfall in your own life? Well, the bad news is you can’t. Primacy issues are everywhere, lurking in everything we say, write, and do (after all, something has to come first). But don’t despair. Although they’re common, primacy issues are relatively easy to fix. One illustrative example comes from my own career as a sales consultant. When I first joined the startup OffersAllDay.com their website’s About section looked like this:
The web’s cheapest gifts, gadgets, and more! We started out as Facebook group where businesses could post exclusive discounts on their products and services; it’s grown like crazy, and now it’s an online retailer with its own inventory and over 400,000 fulfilled orders. And we’ve kept the discount tradition. Best of all, every order comes with a 100% money back guarantee & FREE worldwide shipping.
Notice the problem? At the outset, the reader is told that the site’s products are “cheap.” That’s bad. Nobody wants to buy something that’s cheap. They want to buy things that are expensive at a low price; i.e. discount. It’s a small distinction but an important one. And, although the About section did eventually clarify that a few sentences later (“and we’ve kept the discount tradition”), the damage had already been done. By putting this distinction first, I was able to correct the problem and increase the site’s conversions by a stunning 10%. Not bad for five minutes of work. You can read my new version for yourself here.
2. I’m With Her
Much like “Love Trumps Hate,” Clinton’s main campaign slogan “I’m With Her” appears to be very powerful at first glean. It’s self-referential (I’m), which is generally a plus when it comes to persuasion. It evokes inclusiveness (With), which was one of Clinton’s main political messages. And it reminds us that Clinton, if she were to win the election, would make history as the US’s first female president (Her). Three powerful messages all efficiently packed into three short words. What’s not to love? Well, as it turns out, a lot. Despite its efficiency and cleverness, “I’m With Her” is a flop.
Why? Here’s my theory: “I’m With Her” sounds exactly like “I’m wither.” Now, that may not seem like a big deal to you. It certainly hasn’t seemed like a big deal to anyone else: I can’t find any other articles about this theory. But I contend that it had at least some impact on the election, thanks to a very powerful psychological effect known as priming. Discovered in the 1980s, priming maintains that mere exposure to a word or idea — even unconsciously — can influence the way we think, feel, and act. The classic example is an experiment conducted at New York University 1996, which found that simply reading words related to elderliness (e.g., “Florida”, “Bingo”) caused subjects to walk slower (i.e., act more elderly). It’s also the reason we perceive people as warmer when we’re holding a hot cup of coffee, and colder when we’re sipping an iced one. And, on a micro-level, it’s why I believe “I’m With Her” was a persuasive mulligan.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “wither” as (1) to lose vitality, force, or freshness, (2) to shrivel from or as if from loss of bodily moisture. Does that sound like a word you want to be associated with? Is that the word that comes to mind when you think of your ideal president? Certainly not. If even a fraction of voters were primed by this word every time they heard “I’m with her” as “I’m wither” (remember: priming can work subconsciously) that’s millions of voters who associated Clinton’s campaign with loss of vitality and dry shriveled things. Not good. What makes its a true whopper of a fail, though, is that Clinton herself may have been influenced by it. After all, who on earth had more exposure to that slogan than her? It may even partially explain her frequent bouts of illness.
So, how can you avoid this pitfall in your own life? Like primacy, priming is impossible to avoid but easy to correct. The best way to correct for it is simply to be aware of it. Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman gives some good examples of priming awareness in his book Thinking Fast And Slow:
- “The sight of all these people in uniforms does not prime creativity.”
- “They were primed to find flaws, and this is exactly what they found.”
- “I made myself smile and I’m actually feeling better!”
Whether the “Godzilla” of persuasion, Dr. Robert Cialdini, was consulting with Clinton’s campaign staff behind the scenes — as some commentators have suggested —or not, it’s clear that there were some serious flaws in that department. The branding team either overthought their slogans, or didn’t think about them enough. And it may have cost them the election. To learn more about persuasion in politics, check out my other articles HERE and HERE.