Former Skeptics Can Be Your Best Spokespeople

In the latest installment of their conversation ahead of the US Presidential Elections, Chris Graves and Steve Simpson dissect and debate the candidates’ communications and marketing strategies and techniques.

Graves: Steve, which do you think is the most powerful way to convince skeptics to change their minds, whether they’re choosing between brands or political candidates?

  • Evidence-backed arguments with third-party references as support
  • An emotionally bonding, moving, and persuasive storyline
  • Hearing enemy views coming from a member of your own group

Simpson: I’d like to choose “all of the above,” but if I do, I have a feeling you’re going to set me straight.

Graves: It’s true that they’re all important, but if you don’t get the messenger right from the very start, your audience will reject everything else. This is especially true when it comes to highly charged situations like political campaigns. And it can be very effective when that trusted messenger, who comes from the same group as the audience, startles that audience by adopting the point of view of the opposing group. It’s really easy to dismiss the enemy when they hold an opposing view, but it’s unsettling when someone from your own trusted group surprises you by adopting the enemy view. Research has shown when this happens it can reduce polarization.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign has launched a wave of ads in which “convert communicators” — in this case, people who have defected from the Republican party — explain why they switched their allegiances. The intended audience is Republicans, not Clinton supporters.

The first ad was a remake of a spot called Confessions of a Republican,” from the 1964 Lyndon Johnson campaign, featuring a lifelong Republican named William Bogert who avowed he would vote for a Democrat for the first time. The Clinton campaign tracked down Bogert 52 years later to remake the same spot — this time against Donald Trump. In the original you can see Bogert struggle over his deep, personal Republican identity coming into conflict with the rise of Republican candidate Barry Goldwater. Goldwater turned off moderate Republicans with his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, his endorsement by the KKK, and his jokes about lobbing nuclear weapons at Russia.

The original feels authentic. Bill Bogert squirms and thinks out loud, baring his conflicts and misgivings. But when he performs the same mannerisms half a century later, it feels a bit phony, like the revival of an old Broadway play.

Simpson: “Confessions of a Republican” is a powerful idea. But I disagree that the original felt authentic. I don’t think it was executed well — either in 1964 or in 2016.

The testimony of converts only works when it feels absolutely true. And this is where both the original and the remake miss the mark. The concept of these commercials requires genuine and verifiable testimony. But the creators hired an actor — reportedly with the caveat that he be a Republican, but an actor all the same. In this case, the techniques of making commercials got in the way of the message. The idea deserves documentary plainness; instead, the creators went for an overwritten and theatrical fluency. It felt too much like the actor was dazzling us with rehearsed spontaneity instead of delivering what he promised: a real “confession.”

So, in a year when so many authentic Republicans — who are willing to be named — are abandoning Trump, the Clinton campaign’s homage to the old ad feels self-indulgent and too clever by half.

First appeared on Harvard Business Review. Click here to read the full piece.

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