Perception, Persuasion, and Politics in Media – A Look at How Politicians Can Legally Rig Elections

Ads 2It’s amazing I won. I was running against peace, prosperity, and incumbency. George W. Bush, June 14, 2001, speaking to Swedish Prime Minister Goran Perrson, unaware that a live television camera was still rolling.

The Case Study

Making someone, or indeed something, persuasive is much more complex than it may initially seem. We know what appeals to us to make us align with someone, but we are not always aware what the ‘x factor’ they possess really is; in other words, we can warm to someone without fully understanding why. The following example, from psychological literature, sheds some light on the matter. During the American 1984 Presidential campaign between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale an experiment took place for eight days. Lead researcher Brian Mullen, of Syracuse University, videotaped three national, nightly news broadcasts featuring news anchors Peter Jennings of ABC, Tom Brokaw of NBC and Dan Rather of CBS. Mullen viewed the tapes and excerpted every reference to both candidates, leaving him with thirty-seven segments of roughly two and a half seconds in length. A group of randomly selected participants then viewed the tapes with the volume muted so they were unaware of what the broadcast pertained, removing the chance of political bias. The participants were asked to rate the facial expressions of each news anchor on a 21-point scale, with the lowest number being “extremely negative” and the highest being “extremely positive”.

The outcome proved enlightening. Dan Rather of CBS scored 10.46 and 10.37 when talking about Mondale and Reagan respectively, meaning his expression was perfectly neutral, offering no advocacy over one candidate or the other. Tom Brokaw of NBC scored 11.21 for Mondale and 11.50 for Reagan, making him slightly more positive for both than Rather but still remaining balanced for both. The enlightening part came when analysing the results of ABC’s Peter Jennings. His results showed him speaking more positively about Mondale than both his counterparts, at 13.38, but for Reagan he became so enthusiastic he scored a very high 17.44 – less than four points off the maximum. The study’s researcher Mullen acted in accordance with his scientific duty and tried to determine if there was an explanation for this beyond candidate bias, such as the possibility that he was just more animated and expressive than the other broadcasters. To conclude whether or not this was the case, the same participants were shown control segments from the same broadcasters as they spoke about a happy topic and a sad topic (namely, a medical breakthrough in treating a congenital disease and Indira Gandhi’s funeral respectively). Of Jennings, Brokaw and Rather, Jennings not only failed to score higher, but appeared to be the least expressive and by no means had a happy expression as his usual one. So much so that he scored only 14.13 for the story of the medical breakthrough, which was considerably lower than both other newscasters. Therefore, Mullen had no choice but to conclude that Jennings did, in fact, have “significant and noticeable bias in facial expression” when talking about Ronald Reagan.

Of course, this information is useless by itself and so Mullen, along with his colleagues, needed to find a way to determine whether or not this facial bias actually impacted voting choices. Their method to do this was to phone people who regularly watched the evening news, in various cities all across the country, and enquire who they voted for. The results were quite remarkable: in every phone survey ABC viewers voted Reagan much more than those who watched CBS or NBC. For example, a full three-quarters of the Cleveland ABC watchers voted Reagan, compared to 61.9 per cent of CBS or NBC viewers; over 71 per cent of ABC viewers in Williamstown, Massachusetts, voted Reagan compared to just half of the other two networks; and in Erie, Pennsylvania, it was 73.7 per cent for Reagan and 50 per cent for Mondale. So not only did Jennings subtly influence voting behavior across the nation, but also in staggeringly similar numbers.

Somewhat predictably, and no doubt but for the sake of its public image, ABC vehemently disputed the study, indeed the study researcher Mullen is quoted as saying “It’s my understanding that I’m the only social scientist to have the dubious distinction of being called a ‘jackass’ by Peter Jennings”. It is possible that Mullen’s conclusion got the cart before the horse, that rather than Jennings influencing viewers it is simply that Republicans watch a station that is more sympathetic to their party of choice, and rather than Jennings tempting over 70 per cent of viewers to vote a particular candidate, those 70+ per cent watch Jennings because they like his stance. Yet, as obviously plausible as this is, Mullen argued – with no short supply of likelihood – that it simply was not the case. To validate his claim, he referred to the fact that ABC was actually more hostile to Reagan than Mondale and so cannot be considered necessarily a pro-Republican station. Not leaving the issue there, four years later he proved his initial findings were not merely flukes, because when Bush was competing against Dukakis for Presidency Mullen repeated the experiment – with the same outcome. He said of this second experiment that “Jennings showed more smiles when referring to the Republican candidate than the Democrat” and that in another phone survey like before “viewers who watch Jennings were more likely to have voted for Bush”

Source: Adapted from: The Psychology of Consumer Behavior & The Tipping Point

The Takeaway

It is common knowledge that the media has a profound effect in shaping elections and some would argue it is a useful tool for social engineering. Yet despite knowing the effect exists, few know exactly how it works, except those with esoteric knowledge on the subject – and they are probably exploiting it already. This research has direct implications on how a politician can leverage his position by specific manipulation of the media which can, in turn, have a profound subconscious effect on the choice of voters. Implicit in the above study is the view that if all newscasters covering politics just so much as only exude a positive expression regardless of what is being said when covering or discussing certain politicians, the perception will have a measurable effect come election time. This is subliminal persuasion to say the least, as what is being said is not as important as how it is being said – from a visual perspective that is. A positive slant can be obtained from a neutral or mildly negative story if it is delivered with enthusiasm or positivity, without viewers even consciously comprehending the effect.


As Mullen showed, the independent variable is the facial expression of the newscaster, while the dependent variable is the perceived emotional content of expression i.e. positive or negative. The key word here is ‘perceived’.

Assumptions made in this study are therefore:

a. Newscaster’s preference for a politician is positively correlated with his facial expression

b. Viewers have not misread his expression i.e. if he came across as positive, that is because he is feeling positive, as opposed to appearing positive because his job essentially demands as much.

c. Viewers who were exposed to positive facial expression of a newsreader covering a certain politician are much more likely to view that politician in the same light.

d. Viewers who perceive a politician in a positive light are therefore more likely to vote for the same candidate come election time.

Each assumption is the sine qua non for the next (i.e. for b to be true a has to be true, for c to be true, b has to be true (so a has to be true as well) and so on)

Mullen et al. were careful to draw any conclusion as noted in their statement: “Jennings exhibited a significant and noticeable bias in facial expression toward Reagan” which neither gives away nor explicitly implies Jennings’s political preference.

Perhaps there is really only one way to confirm the above study and put it beyond any reasonable doubt: to look at Peter Jennings’ voting ballot. Since that is illegal, it seems that the only person that will ever know for sure is Peter Jennings himself. However, t is unlikely for Jennings to ever reveal who he voted for for two reasons; a) this is a powerful knowledge to have (if confirmed) and b) the backlash for ABC and Jennings is unthinkable.


Mullen et al. found that people who watch Jennings were more likely to vote for Regan than people who watched Brokaw or Rather. Newscasters can have much more influence than they either believe or admit. Such findings are disturbing to say the least, for they purport that we are effectively governed by what we see. In everyday life, political discussions rarely lead to a changed opinion, and yet tacit, subconscious influences can have profound effects. To quote Mullen once more: “When people watch the news, they don’t intentionally filter biases out, or feel they have to argue against the expression of the newscaster…it’s much more subtle and for that reason much more insidious, and that much harder to insulate ourselves against.”

A second implication of these findings is that visual, nonverbal cues are equally, or more, important than verbal ones. As validated countless times by body language experts, how we conduct ourselves matters. This is further proven when we simply consider that Jennings did not litter his newscasts with pro-Reagan speeches – in fact, as mentioned previously, ABC was openly more hostile to the Republican party than NBC and CBS.

The third, final and arguably most important implication is that persuasion works in ways we often do not appreciate, or even understand. For instance, visual expressions of happiness such as smiles and nods are not subliminal, they are visible and apparent. However, they are very subtle and the way in which they are used gets processed in our subconscious and then relayed in our conscious with a message that such-and-such is good. In this instance, Jennings smiling each time he mentioned Reagan subtly influenced viewers to believe Reagan was a good choice to vote for. Yet, despite this link, no viewer would ever accept it is the reason they voted for Reagan; no, they would argue that they liked Reagan’s policies, or thought he was doing well so far or even his charisma, but never that they were influenced by a newsreaders smile. Yet it is very apparent that persuasiveness works beyond eloquence and choice of words; it works very well with subtle, nonverbal communication too.


· A politician seeking power will benefit from newsreaders displaying positive expressions when covering news pieces that relate to him or her.

· To avoid accusations of a biased media, this strategy can be undertaken covertly (e.g. the director of the news company can encourage the ‘right’ newscaster to smile more often when covering a certain subject. That way, the newscaster does not even need to be aware of their own effect on viewers/voters). This will reduce any likelihood of the newscaster exposing the tactic at a later date.

· When times are good, a politician in power can use this knowledge as a tool for gaining public approval for his agenda or pushing through his policies.

· When times are bad, it can help with PR or falling popularity.


A politician’s winning smile is often mentioned. The above study is clearly consistent with the disturbing possibility that a smile might be able to elect a president! Granted, that is farfetched even for the most naive wannabe believers. ‘Smiling’ alone may not elect a president, but when used in conjunction with many other media manipulation techniques, the outcome of an election can be all but certain.

Below is just one of many examples on how clever media manipulation can be used for political gains. White (1972) described how Franklin Roosevelt cleverly removed Thomas E. Dewey from the stimulus situation for an evening during the 1944 presidential campaign. Roosevelt had reserved a fifteen-minute segment on NBC radio and Dewey subsequently reserved the following fifteen-minute segment in order to capitalise on Roosevelt’s audience. However Roosevelt spoke only for fourteen of his allocated fifteen minutes and left the last minute completely silent. Reportedly, listeners across the country believed that the NBC network has gone off the air after the president’s speech and all of those listeners began scanning for other stations. As a result, the millions who had listened to Roosevelt a minute before were not listening when Dewey came on the air.

Although Roosevelt’s action had less to do with persuasion and more to do with underhand tactics, the results are equally profound as the public/voters were not aware that they were being ‘manipulated’.

For a more recent example on perception, persuasion and politics in media, consider Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. We have the benefit of a retrospective view on Obama as a politician, therefore it is vital to consider the following scenario from its given time frame of prior to the election. In October 2008, Wall Street Journal Online reported that Obama had made a decision not to sport an American flag pin on his lapel. When asked in an interview with KCRG-TV in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the Illinois senator said he stopped wearing the pin shortly after the attacks and instead hoped to show his patriotism by explaining his ideas to citizens:

The truth is that right after 9/11 I had a pin. Shortly after 9/11, particularly because as we’re talking about the Iraq war, that became a substitute for I think true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security. I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest, instead, I’m going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great, and hopefully that will be a testament to my patriotism. (Taranto WSJO)

During the campaign trail, Obama’s pastor, Rev Jeremiah Wright, gave a speech (later referred to as “God Damn America”) that was racially polarising and could easily spell the death blow for Obama’s White House aspirations. Rev Wright was alienating white voters (amongst many other anti-patriotic criticisms) with his rhetoric, and to the viewers and voters, Obama was guilty by association.

This prompted Obama to issue a TV ad denouncing Wright’s statements. His “major speech on race” was also necessitated by the revelation that his “spiritual mentor” had among other things called on God to damn America. Critics noted that Obama “did the right thing”, that his TV ad statement and speech were well crafted and “did the job” considering the extent of the case, and the campaign’s aim of damage control.

Most people may not realise that Obama’s TV ad has the American flag carefully placed in shot, and he gave his “major speech on race” amid a row of eight American flags! They were placed directly behind him as he stood at the lectern. (This is perhaps the most liberal use of subtle tactics uncovered by Mullen.)

Critics were quick to notice it, with James Taranto of the WSJ noting:

…in light of his October comment, what are we to make of his extravagant use of the Stars and Stripes on Tuesday (Major Speech on Race)? If a flag pin on a lapel is “a substitute for true patriotism,” is that not also true of eight flags on a stage as a backdrop to a political speech? Obama proclaimed himself too good for cheap symbolism, but resorted to it the first time he faced a real crisis. Is he really any different from the run-of-the-mill politician?

In the context of this paper, a critical reader will not ask “what the flag symbolises” but rather “how such symbolism and visual aids can be used in media for the attainment of specific purposes”.

This is not to take anything away from Obama as a politician. But to ignore the impact of carefully crafted media images (i.e. images of Obama eloquently denouncing Wright against a backdrop of American flags beamed to millions of American voters) will be blatantly taking credit away from the media’s contribution to Obama’s campaign.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is no surprise that Obama’s campaign has successfully leveraged the power of media. It is also no secret that his campaign’s online media strategies – his personal website, YouTube channel and social networking site – were well crafted and credited for Obama’s election success. For further insurance, Obama’s camp had hired Facebook’s co-founder Chris Hughes to coordinate their online efforts.

This does not mean people such as Jennings, and the media as a collective, are unwitting tools in the political game. At least, not explicitly; they can be with the right circumstances. If a US politician aspiring to the highest office goes on national television and fails to name a Supreme Court case other than Roe v Wade, no amount of media persuasion or manipulation can save their political campaign. In fact, it will further speed up their political demise. Consider the following example: In the run up to the 2008 US presidential election, Republican vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin was ridiculed after her interviews with CBS’s Katie Couric. In the interviews, the then Governor of Alaska appeared stumped by relatively easy questions regarding Supreme Court rulings and foreign policies. At one point, in response to Couric’s question: “…when it comes to establishing your world view, I was curious, what newspapers and magazines did you regularly read..?” Palin could not, or at least did not, even name one newspaper that she read.

As one can imagine, when the interviews aired, the media had a field day at Palin’s expense. The key point here is not how Sarah Palin carved her own downfall by appearing incompetent or how Palin jokes making the rounds among newscasters and late night talk-show hosts were making her look bad; but rather the ‘message’ the newscasters have imprinted on their viewers. A newscaster may be presenting news on the Grand Old Party as professionally as he possibly can, but his personal sense of disbelief, whilst irrelevant to the news, is somehow transported into the mind of viewers through the subtle, the hidden and the unspoken.

The fact that such a seemingly incompetent woman could one day be President of America should the Republicans win the election and anything happen to John McCain hit home to viewers, without the newscaster intending as much. Accordingly, Palin suddenly became the talking point of citizens who up until that point had little to no interest in politics. The ‘Jennings effect’ therefore can also work the other way round: negativity from a newsreader can cause disillusion with the party.

A politician with such knowledge and the right skills can theoretically push the right buttons, tick the right boxes and win our votes. Isn’t that what a politician is supposed to do anyway? Isn’t that his job, to use the media and any available tool at his disposal to convince us? Yes, it is, just like it is a magician’s job to convince us of the seemingly impossible. It is one thing watching a magician perform and applauding him, but another to reveal the secrets to his tricks. In some ways, a politician is similar to a magician as they both have to perform in public, they both have to gain our approval to win us over, they both use perception and persuasion techniques and they both have to sometimes convince us against overwhelming odds. The only difference is that when it is all said and done, when the performance is over a magician has no say over the forces that influence of our lives and country.

To take this crude analogy further, a street magician can use all the tricks up his sleeves to manipulate members of the public for good or bad intentions. Moreover, there is absolutely nothing to stop these people using it for their own personal gains. We, the public, are aware of this and call them ‘conmen’ or ‘scam artists’. This is not to say that all street magicians are scam artists or that politicians have their own agendas; an overwhelming majority of them have good intentions and politicians are there to serve the public trust.

The premise of this paper is not to identify politicians with street magicians. Any criticism directed at such comparison is missing the point. It is one thing to watch a magician manipulate an audience, it is another to reveal the tricks, and yet entirely another to replicate it (perform it). Similarly it is one thing to watch Jennings on ABC news, another to be able to link viewers voting preference with his facial expressions, and yet entirely another to be able to methodise it and incorporate such methods to affect the outcome of an election.

Perhaps knowledge really is power. But the great Napoleon Hill once wrote that “Knowledge is only potential power. It becomes power only when, and if, it is organised into definite plans of action and directed to a definite end.” [p 75 (2004) Think and Grow Rich]

And so, with the above information in mind, I propose the following questions to the reader:

As a voter,

  • How would you view the next political message you come across?
  • How would you analyse it or read into it?

As a politician,

  • How would you devise your next campaign?
  • How are you utilising the media to maximise the effectiveness of your message?

More importantly, what would one do with knowledge that can shape the outcome of an election? Is such knowledge applicable elsewhere? Is it already in use? Have I been affected by it? These are the questions that are central to the premise of this paper.

The methods discussed so far represent only the tip of the iceberg, the size of which remains undetermined. Therefore, in future, if a reader watches a political campaign and recalls the discussion and questions set forth earlier then, suffice to say, the author has achieved his original aim when he set out to write this article.


In conclusion, consider the following fictional work by suspense author Robert Bloch. The story presents a nameless professor who has arranged a secret meeting with the head of the nation’s largest advertising firm. The reason for the meeting is to propose a means of developing the most effective type of politician.

When I began to study these things you’ve mentioned – how people from the entertainment would have gradually infiltrated politics as advisors, producers, technicians; how they’ve tried to train our politicians and office holders to become like actors. And it occurred to me then- why not use actors?… You said yourself that almost any man who starts with a clean record and a noncommittal attitude can be built into a political figure by means of present-day psychological techniques. The trick is to teach him to speak, to handle himself properly when on public display. So why waste time on tired old men or egotistical prima donnas who can’t cope with their roles? If politics is show business, why not put the right actors into the parts to begin with? (Bloch, 1959, Show Biz p.66)

The notion is probably somewhat fanciful, but certainly interesting – that an effective politician could be produced merely by using an existing actor who knows how to “play to an audience”, as evidenced perhaps by Clint Eastwood becoming Mayor or Carmel in the 1980s. Or, maybe even Ronald Reagan’s rise to presidency.

As Bloch’s writing shows, it seems that reality can sometimes draw inspiration from fiction. Or is it the other way around?

David S. Wong is the Head of Corporate Communications at Asia Media. He has been with the company since its inception in 2007. He is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Brighton where he specializes in entrepreneurship and management practices of IT and media firms. David also works as a management and IT consultant. He is a Microsoft certified systems administrator. A Malaysian native, David studied Civil Engineering at University of Liverpool where he obtained an honours degree. He subsequently read postgraduate Management at University of Brighton where he graduated at the top of his class with Distinction. David splits his time between living in London and Kuala Lumpur. His current interests include advertising, digital Out-of-Home media, management and entrepreneurship research. In his spare time, David enjoys managing his own portfolio: trading derivates and shares on the UK and US stock market.

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