Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Framing for Third Parties

While George Lakoff goes into great detail about how and why Democrats should get into the framing business, in his books and papers on politics, he pays almost no attention to third parties. Yet, third parties are likely to benefit as much or more than Democrats from careful framing. While there are institutional barriers in place that prevent third parties from being overly effective, either in affecting the outcomes of elections (at least at the state and national level) or influencing major-party platforms, third parties could do more to get their candidates and positions noticed, if they worked hard to carefully frame their positions in such a way that they are both easily alignable with and differentiated from the positions of the two major parties.

In order to see why this is the case, it might help to think of candidates as brands. This shouldn't be too much of a stretch, with all the advertising and merchandise that goes into a campaign. In addition, as with choosing a product, people who aren't wedded to a certain brand will likely be comparing the products, and analyzing their commonalties and differences. In American politics, two brands are deeply entrenched. New brands (third parties) have to take advantage of the ways the mind works if they want to reach the forefront of the public's consciousness.

In a previous post, I briefly described how frames, or schemas, influence expectations, inferences, memory, and the interpretation of new instances. Brands (and candidates) are, in essence, schemas (or frames). Much of politics, and business competition, consists of trying to frame one's own brand, and at the same time, frame the other guy's brand, as Lakoff has demonstrated quite well (even if his details are more than a bit... off). New candidates/schemas/brands suffer from a disadvantage in that they will always be compared to the entrenched brands on their own terms. However, new brands can turn this disadvantage into an advantage, if they play their cards right. To illustrate how, I'm going to talk about two findings from cognitive psychology and marketing that illustrate the principles involved in comparing brands (and schemas in general), and thus how third parties should go about structuring their own public representations. There's a lot of theory behind all this, and I'm going to try to avoid getting into it at the moment. For now, suffice it to say that neither Lakoff's conceptual metaphor theory, nor blending, are much help here, as is usually the case in practical situations.

It's well known that brands that do well early in the existence of a particular market (early entrants) have an advantage over later entrants. The first of the two findings came from experiments1 designed to look at how later entrants are compared to early entrants, and how they can overcome the early entrant advantage. Previous research2 had shown that early entrants provided the structure for comparisons with new brands when preferences are being determined, as well as that the attributes of early entrants are better remembered than those of later entrants3. In this set of experiments, participants were introduced to three brands over three sessions (extended over 3 weeks). In the first session, they were introduced to one brand, the early entrant. A week later, they saw the early entrant brand again, as well as two new brands, one of which had previously been rated by another group of participants as equally preferable when compared to the early entrant, while the third had been rated as more preferable. The researchers found that the more preferable later entrant could be preferred to the early entrant, and its attributes better remembered, thus overcoming the early entrant advantage, but only if the more preferable later entrant differed from the early entrant in a particular way. If the preferable later entrant's differences were not relevant to the structure provided by the early entrant (i.e., the two brands differed not on the same dimensions, but instead had entirely separate dimensions -- if the differences were not related to shared attributes), then the early entrant was preferred, and the later entrants attributes not remembered. However, if the differences between the early and late entrants were on relevant dimensions (i.e., related to shared attributes), then the preferable later entrant was in fact preferred, and its attributes were remembered.

The second, related finding came from another set of experiments4 which further explored comparisons between early and late entrant brands. Using a similar design, these experiments found that when participants were highly motivated to process brand information, they noticed, remembered, and were influenced in their preference by differences that were not relevant to the structure provided by early entrants. In other words, they were influenced by differences that did not relate to attributes that the early and late entrants had in common. This was not the case when participants were not very motivated to process information about the brands. In this case, participants only tended to notice and use information that pertained to common attributes, as in the previous set of experiments.

The moral of this story, in case it is not obvious, is that to overcome the early entrant advantage (which comes both from being the first brand or brands, and from getting more exposure, as is the case for the two major political parties), new entrants have to pay attention to how their public representation lines up with those of earlier entrants. In politics, it's unlikely that most people, including independents, are highly motivated to process information about third party candidates. They're probably not sufficiently dissatisfied with the two major parties, and they're likely to think that the third party candidates are inviable. This means that people are unlikely to notice, remember, or be swayed by third party positions that aren't framed in such a way that they are relevant to peoples' representation of major party candidates. Third party candidates, at least in the beginning, must make it clear how they differ on the issues that the major party candidates are talking about. Of course, this isn't sufficient to overcome the major parties' advantage; the third party candidates also have to sell their positions as preferable. However, even if most people would prefer their positions, they're unlikely to notice or remember them if they're not alignable with the major parties'.

To illustrate the truth of this in the political arena, consider Ralph Nader's anti-corporate stance. While this is his favorite talking point, it has thus far done little to influence his perception among the majority of voters, including those who are planning on voting for him. This is because his anti-corporate stance doesn't line up with any of overt stances of Bush and Kerry, which means that when people compare Nader to one or both of them, they're unlikely to even remember, much less have their choice influenced by the differences between Bush and Kerry on the one hand, and Nader on the other, on the issue of corporate influence. Nader likes to believe that he can make people believe that he differs on a relevant dimension, or a common attribute (stance toward corporations), but it doesn't work this way. The early entrants determine which attributes are, and are not, relevant in the comparison of two brands, and as long as people aren't motivated to carefully consider Nader's positions, nothing he does is going to change this.

Once people begin to be motivated to consider the stances of third party candidates, these candidates can begin to show how they differ on the issues that the major party candidates aren't even talking about. Nader can talk up his anti-corporate positions, Badnarik can talk about how Congress is crossing over its Constitutionally-provided boundaries, and what's-his-name from the Constitutional Party can tell us how crazy he is. Of course, it's often the case today that the only goal of a particular third party candidate (e.g., Nader) is to bring awareness to a certain issue or issues. These issues are not alignable with the major party talking points, and therefore tend to hover outside of the public's awareness. Even though these issues are not alignable, third party candidates who want to bring them to the public's attention can still learn from what we know about brand comparisons. By framing the non-alignable issues in such a way that they do line up with the talking points of the major parties, third party candidates are much more likely to get their pet issues notice.

To sum everything up, because of the advantages of the two entrenched parties in comparisons with candidates from third parties, third party candidates must pay close attention to how they frame their positions. In particular, because the major parties will determine the dimensions on which the comparisons will take place, third party candidates will have to work hard to make sure that they frame their positions so that they line up with positions that are explicit in the major party candidates' platforms. This is the case even when the third party candidates' issues don't line up in a straightforward way with explicit major party positions. It's not ideal that major parties are able to determine the issues on which they will be compared with third parties, but unfortunately, that's just the way things work. Third parties can take advantage of this, though, if they are willing to play the game. If not, they'll probably never be noticed, or influence American politics or political attitudes at all. They'll fade into obscurity as Ralph Nader is destined to do.

1 C.P. Moreau, D.R. Lehman, & Markman, A. B. (2001). Entrenched category structures and resistance to 'really' new products. Journal of Marketing Research, 38(1), 14-29.
2 Carpenter, Gregory S. and Kent Nakamoto (1989). "Consumer Preference Formation and Pioneering Advantage." Journal of Marketing Research, 26, 285-298.
3 Kardes, K. & Kalyanaram, G. (1992). Order-of-Entry Effects on Consumer Memory and Judgment: An Information Integration Perspective. Journal of Marketing Research, 29, 343-357.
4 Zhang, S., & Markman, A.B. (2001). Processing product-unique features: Alignment and involvement in preference construction. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 11(1), 13-27.


Anonymous said...

I wonder how that fits in with Ross Perot. Until his crazy factor kicked in he was doing surprisingly well. I suppose one big factor was that he talked about the deficit which, if I remember correctly, also was a talking point of Clinton. 

Posted by clark

Anonymous said...

Framing: Is that so far from pandering? I have read some of Lakoff's ideas on politics--I enjoyed his critique of Schwarzenegger, who wins, simply by representing the Big Daddy Authoritarian, regardlesss of what he says, really--but I think (and excuse the reductionism) the whole issue is about voting really. IN other words, if voting continually leads to aburdity-- a Bush or Ahh-nuld coming into office--, then perhaps dems and 3rd parties should be doing something to reform the entire voting process, such as calling for poll tests and education requirements, for polticians and voters. Listening to Bush rant nearly psychotically in the debates I wondered if this stooge could pass a basic stats. class or econ. test. The problem is that millions of walmartian "patriots" will vote for the moron, will vote for the cowboy aggressor. Really a degree requirement--or at least some qualifying exam-- for voters is not such a bad idea, though it would result in "elitist" protestations from dems and leftists. Yet if the working classes are voting mostly GOP--and that seems to be the case--then ed. requirements might be in the liberal's interest, and at least a pragmatic solution instead of bolshevik- like strategies.


Posted by nemesis

Anonymous said...

Any concrete examples? What should a "Nader" talk about to get noticed? 

Posted by coturnix

Anonymous said...

cortunix, that's a good question. The issues that seem to be important to most voters this year are the war and jobs. If Nader had a few talking points that demonstrated how his plan to create jobs differed from Bush's and Kerry's, that might do the trick, as long as those differences were framed in such a way that they contrasted specifically with particular parts of Kerry and Bush's plans. On the war, I'm afraid Nader is pretty much screwed. Many of the votes he has now are strong anti-war votes, and he couldn't get anything else out of that.

I would have to look more closely at Nader's plans to come up with a good frame that would highlight alignable differences. Maybe I'll write a post on it sometime this week. 

Posted by Chris

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