In political marketing, microtargeting and personalization of campaign messages have become a well-established communication strategy. What I will show in this post, though, is that tailoring the visual design of political messages to the individual needs and preferences of each primary audience might be of similar importance to win votes.
The end of the 18th century marks a principal paradigm shift in literary criticism from a positivist view described by Holubs (2013) as a mechanical approach to literary texts and a narrow, almost chauvinist outlook’ towards a view which came to pay attention to the function of the reader in a literary experience. Holubs (2013) also define six main influences of this new reader-response theory which have been marked as precursors to the previously domination positivist paradigm: Russian Formalism, Prague structuralism, the phenomenology of Roman Ingarden, Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutics, the ‘sociology of literature’ and the French structuralists (Holub, 2013).
In West Germany, during the late 1960s this new paradigm in the analysis of communications models, came to be referred to as audience reception or reception theory with Hans Robert Jauss as one of its main contributors. According to reception theory; the connotation of a text is created within the relationship between the text and the reader and the meaning of a text always will be the result of previous life experiences and the reader’s cultural background.
Stuart Hall, one of the main proponents of this theory, also came to develop his own approach to reception theory particularly centred around television, focusing on the scope of “negotiation” and “opposition” by the audience based on the following reception models:
- Dominant (or ‘hegemonic’) reading
- In a dominant reading, the audience will share the same values as the sender of a message and fully accepts the authors preferred reading.
- Negotiated reading
- The negotiated reading model proposes that the reader broadly accepts the preferred/dominant reading but resist and modify part of it to reflect their personal position.
- Oppositional (‘counter-hegemonic’) reading
- In an oppositional reading, the preferred reading is understood but rejected by the audience.
Hall’s model of ‘encoding/decoding’ has become one the leading views of modern reception theory and is an effective instrument to understand how different audiences perceive communicated information.
Reception theory in political marketing
Hall’s model of encoding/decoding fits well in the communication model of politics where the importance of understanding and addressing driving factors of distinct voter segments has long been well understood which in it’s most basic form is illustrated when a political candidate holds a speech in for example a factory, addressing problems and issues of great importance to this local audience but that would bare little interest to outsiders.
Simplified Halls encoding/decoding model translated to a political communication model can be illustrated as follows:
- Core voters fully agreeing with a political message -> Dominant reading
- Mainstream voters agreeing with most but not all of a political program or message -> Negotiated reading
- Voters of an oppositional party in total opposition to a political message – Oppositional reading
Most political marketers, even though not familiar with reception theory per se, will acknowledge this segmentation model, adapting political marketing messages to each segment of core, mainstream and oppositional voters. As an example; according to Issenberg (2013), one of the main reasons to Obama’s victory in the 2008 US presidential election was the way in which big data was used to identify significant voter audiences for which tailored campaign messages were created and communicated to. This enabled Obama to focus his main campaign messaging on the fundamental values of his politics summarised under the ‘Hope’ slogan, while at the same time reaching out to highly specific audiences such as military veterans normally voting Republican, directly addressing their biggest concerns with his political program and conclusively convincing them to vote for him.
Personalization of the message
In the modern marketing vernacular, the terms ‘adaptive content’ and ‘personalised digital advertising’ have quickly become two of the hottest buzzwords (Chandra, 2017). The idea of this communication strategy is to deliver product offers, search results, messages and editorial content adapted specifically to the interests and needs of individual demographic- and psychographic audience segments and most of today’s leading web marketing platforms such as Triblio (2017) and ECM (Adobe.com, 2017) has also come to offer solutions that enable organisations to deliver messages and content tailored to their different audience segments.
However; according to reception theory, the connotation of a message will depend on, not only how the core message communicated in the copy but also how it is conveyed through the choice of colours, typefaces, the position of type and imagery, content hierarchy and composition of photographs; all decoded by the reader’s personal psychographics, demographics, life experiences, cultural and religious background. To communicate efficiently marketers, thereby, need not only to identify, address and target the core issues of each primary target audience through the message, but also create a design strategy and user experience adapted to the general design preferences and needs of each audience segment.
How political marketers can benefit using audience-adapted design strategies
Modern political campaigning has become a game of statistical analysis and in the 2016 US presidentials all four leading political organizations (Republican, Democratic, Libertarian and Green parties) used big data analysis and microtargeting to win votes (Woodie, 2017).
While the paradigm of ‘audience-adaptive content’ and ‘microtargeting’ in political marketing now is well-established concepts (Forbes.com, 2017; Preimesberger, 2017; Woodie, 2017), what is still much less understood in this domain of communication, is the impact of visual design in the readers decoding of the communicated message.
As an example; in commercial marketing it is well understood that different audiences have different design preferences and needs, and few marketers would use the same design- and content strategy when creating adverts or websites targeting twenty-year-olds, as when communicating to baby boomers. Still, in political marketing, this is exactly how much of political campaigning is performed.
Visiting Hillary Clintons campaign website (Hillaryclinton.com, n.d) 2016-10-25 using my personal computer, my wife’s laptop and a friend’s mobile phone, it surprised me to see that even though the three of us having very different demographics and psychographics I still got presented with the exact same model of design, and this was also repeated when visiting Donald Trumps campaign website (Donaldjtrump.com, n.d).
With my wife being a European female in her early thirties with no interest in American politics, my friend a hard-core republican soon turning sixty and myself a strong liberal in the lower forties; the tree of us, clearly, have very different political standpoints, information needs and design preferences, and, according to reception theory, therefore will decode both the message and the design of the media conveying it very different. As suggested by reception theory, to communicate efficiently, adapting the design and the user experience to the distinct preferences of our demographics and psychographics, using the same targeting methods and technologies that already was in place for microtargeting and delivering audience-adaptive messages (Forbes.com, 2017; Preimesberger, 2017; Woodie, 2017), both the Trump and the Clinton campaigns would have been much more efficient in their communication.
If a political campaign wants to communicate efficiently to a twenty-year-old art student spending most of her weekends clubbing, then what reception theory suggest is that this person will have a very different perception model of what constitutes as ‘attractive and legible design’ compared to a retired military officer in his late sixties, which need to be reflected, not only in campaign messages, but also in the visual appearance of campaign assets.
Why audience adaptive design can help winning votes in political elections
After performing an initial literature review of personalization and audience adapted content in political marketing, I found a vast body of literature, tools and research studies on tactics, efficiency and technologies for message personalization and micro-targeting in political communication. This indicates, not only the efficiency of audience-adapted messaging strategies, but also the broad acceptance of this marketing methodology. However, performing a similar review in the domain of audience-adapted design, I found the body of research and literature in this field pretty much non-existing.
With the deficiency of available research in the domain of audience-adapted design in political communication; before asserting this as an effective communication strategy to win voters in political campaigns further research needs to be performed. What reception theory indicates, though, is that tailoring the visual design of political messages to the individual needs and preferences of each primary audience, might be as important and efficient as the now widely accepted methodology of personalising the message.
- Adobe.com. (2017). Enterprise content management, ECM | Adobe Experience Manager. [online] Available at: http://www.adobe.com/marketing-cloud/enterprise-content-management.html#x [Accessed 15 Mar. 2017].
- Chandra, A. (2017). AdobeVoice: Why Personalization Is Key To The Future Of Marketing. [online] Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/adobe/2014/05/12/why-personalization-is-key-to-the-future-of-marketing/#1956855ccd8a [Accessed 15 Mar. 2017].
- Donaldjtrump.com. (2017). SHOW YOUR SUPPORT FOR DONALD J. TRUMP. [online] Available at: https://www.donaldjtrump.com/ [Accessed 15 Mar. 2017].
- Forbes.com. (2017). Big Data Analytics And The Next President. [online] Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/metabrown/2016/05/29/big-data-analytics-and-the-next-president-how-microtargeting-drives-todays-campaigns/#54bc3beb6c42 [Accessed 15 Mar. 2017].
- Hall, S. (1973). Encoding and decoding in the television discourse Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. 1st ed. [Place of publication not identified]: University of Birmingham.
- Hillaryclinton.com. (2016). Hillary Clinton 2016. [online] Available at: https://www.hillaryclinton.com/ [Accessed 15 Mar. 2017].
- Holub, R. (2013). Reception Theory. 1st ed. Taylor & Francis, p.14.
- Issenberg, S. (2013). The victory lab. 1st ed. Broadway Books.
- Machor, J. and Goldstein, P. (2009). Reception study. 1st ed. New York: Routledge.
- Preimesberger, C. (2017). Why Winning Politics Is Now Tied to Big Data Analytics. [online] Datanami. Available at: https://www.datanami.com/2016/05/10/winning-politics-now-tied-big-data/ [Accessed 15 Mar. 2017].
- Triblio. (2017). Personalized Content Marketing – Triblio. [online] Available at: http://triblio.com/personalized-content-marketing/ [Accessed 15 Mar. 2017].
- Woodie, A. (2017). Big-Data Analytics Plays Big Role in 2016 Election Campaigns. [online] eWEEK. Available at: http://www.eweek.com/big-data-and-analytics/big-data-analytics-plays-big-role-in-2016-election-campaigns [Accessed 15 Mar. 2017].