U of M research explains Obama's marketing savvy

Barack Obama
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama speaks at a rally in Eau Claire, Wis.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Akshay Rao is not a political scientist. He is a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.

"Most of my research has been on how consumers interpret price information, how firms use that information," Rao said.

Akshay Rao
Professor Akshay Rao has been working to apply principles from marketing, his chosen field, to the world of political campaigns.
Photo Courtesy of The University of Minnesota

But four years ago he had a thought: Maybe candidates could learn something from corporations.

"The Democratic Party and the Republican Party are in a duopoly, fairly similar to Coke and Pepsi," Rao explained. "But if you look at the sophistication that Coca-Cola and Pepsi bring to their task, it is far superior to what the Democrats and Republicans bring to their task."

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So he started doing some experiments. And one marketing principle Rao found that campaigns should study is something called "temporal construal."

The key word is temporal, like time. The idea is that when you want to buy something soon, that's when you are interested in the nitty-gritty details of a product. When you're thinking of buying something in the distant future, you're not.

"Imagine you're coming to Cancun for spring break next year," Rao said. "You're probably thinking of warm, sunny beaches and margaritas. You're thinking of abstract ideas. Then imagine that you're going to Cancun tomorrow. Now, you're probably thinking about taxi cabs and plane tickets and passports. You're thinking about very concrete information."

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton stands in the midst of a crowd gathered at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

So when your Cancun vacation is off in the future, you're not going to be terribly receptive to ads about taxi fares. But as the vacation date draws near, suddenly you'll find yourself keenly interested in those kinds of ads.

So, with Election Day more than seven months away, the message for political campaigns is clear.

"Talking about policy issues and plans and initiatives -- very concrete issues -- is less likely to be persuasive than if you are talking about abstract notions such as strength and security and so on and so forth," Rao said.

Or to draw the obvious connection to the current presidential race, when Barack Obama talks about broad, emotional themes like hope or change, that's going to be more persuasive right now than a more detailed discourse on energy policy, like the one his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton gave in Iowa last year.

It included passages on "green vehicle bonds," "a rigorous implementation plan," "lithium ion batteries" and something called "decoupling."

Lately, Obama has added some detail to his stump speech, but it's not on the level of decoupling and lithium ion batteries.

Professor Rao admits that talking about what you're going to do, while de-emphasizing the specifics of how you're going to do it, isn't going to appeal to every voter.

But Rao's research shows it's especially effective with two key segments of the electorate.

"People who are uninvolved -- that is, people who are likely to vote, but are not thinking about the election, because it's still a decision far in the distant future -- and people who are uninformed," he said.

Plus, just like a corporation, a campaign can have multiple communication strategies aimed at different segments of a market.

"If you have undecided voters who are interested in your position on health care, they can go to your Web site and find out," Rao said. "But that's not what you're talking about on the stump every day."

But doesn't it cheapen democracy to just equate it with commerce? At least a little?

"No, I don't think it cheapens it," Rao said. "I think it elevates it to bring the science of my discipline, which is -- we view consumers the way marine biologists view fish, not the way fishermen view fish."

Akshay Rao said at its core, marketing is about figuring out what people want and how to deliver it to them. And what could be more democratic than giving the people what they want?