Graves ’81 Examines Campaign Communication through Behavioral Science

Christopher Graves ’81

Christopher Graves ’81

Christopher Graves ’81 is the global chairman of Ogilvy Public Relations and formerly held senior positions with CNBC Asia and CNBC Europe. This summer the Rockefeller Foundation and ideas42 selected him for a prestigious Bellagio Residency, where he has continued his work to turn findings from cognitive neuroscience and behavioral economics into practical applications in communications.

In this election season, Graves has co-authored several online posts for Harvard Business Review, analyzing communications from the Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump campaigns. Below are highlights with links to the full posts:

The Art and Science Behind the Negative TV Ads of Trump and Clinton

There is a deep and deeply confusing body of research on negative ads and voter turnout.  There have been findings that negative ads: a) have no impact; b) decrease voter turnout; c) increase voter turnout; d) both increase and decrease turnout depending on the party and the timing.  One recent study looking back more than a decade says negative ads work better to mobilize Republican voters than Democrats. Another claims to find that Independents stop voting when both major parties go negative.

But beyond each individual election, the long-term trend is clearly negative. And that is taking its toll.

Governor [John] Hickenlooper [’74] of Colorado has claimed he will only go positive this time around. He likens the damage of negative advertising to mutually assured product destruction. If Coca-Cola and Pepsi slammed each other’s products no one would drink either, he says: “What we’re doing is we’re depressing the product category of democracy. And especially young people just tune out.”

Is Insulting Your Rival’s Supporters Ever a Good Idea?

Research found that when two rival groups feel competition heating up, they feel a “greater need for inter-group differentiation,” and because of that they prefer their leaders to go more extreme.

So…this indicates Trump supporters may want him to keep going more extreme. Hit even harder. And maybe Clinton’s supporters feel that way about her as well.

But as a brand strategy for winning over a rival’s fans, hardcore outgroup derogation presents many risks. The cases we see, whether it’s Mac vs. PC, Pepsi vs. Coke, or Samsung vs. Apple, all use humor and a wink rather than a curse and a bludgeon.


When Saying Something Nice is the Only Way to Change Someone’s Mind

When town hall participant Karl Becker got the closing question in the second presidential debate, I was thrilled to see him ask the same question I had submitted to the the prior week. Some viewers may have laughed at the naiveté of our kindergarten-level suggestion to name something positive about your opponent. But not behavioral scientists.

It often feels impossible to change people’s minds on an issue. Most attempts to persuade backfire and make the gulf between groups of opposing views an even wider chasm, filled with toxic verbal sewerage. You’d think 21st century educated humans might consider evidence and adjust their views accordingly. But behavioral science shows that the more facts and evidence you bring to the argument, the more adversarial things become for most humans, and the farther off you push any reconciliation.

But what Karl and I were getting at is a tactic known as “affirmation.” It may be one of the only ways to begin to melt rigid opinions just enough to enable some flexible discussion.