Simon, Garfunkel, Sanders, and Emotion in “America”: Political Ad Testing

Aaron Reid
Ph.D. Chief Behavioral Scientist, Sentient Decision Science

Bernie Sanders’ improbable rise in the Democratic primaries is a great example of the power of passion to motivate behavior.

By nearly pulling off a win in Iowa, and with the real possibility of winning New Hampshire looming next week, Sanders’ campaign illustrates the advantage inherent in standing on the shoulders of emotional messaging.

His campaign ad “America,” with Simon and Garfunkel’s song enhancing the subtext, provides a window into how he is evoking emotion based on values:

It is certainly a “feel good” ad. In fact, it is so obviously emotional, that the moderators of the last Democratic Town Hall decided it would be a good probe to use for a reaction from Hillary Clinton on the emotionality of Sanders’ campaign.

When put on the spot, Clinton handled the situation with great grace admitting that she “loved it” and applauding the “poetry” of it.

However, the impact of that ad on Hillary’s candidacy is not trifling. In the days leading into the Iowa primary, we tested the implicit impact of exposure to the Sanders’ “America” ad on emotional favorability toward Clinton.

The results showed something that a typical explicit question of voter preference might not have revealed.

Political Ad Testing Bernie Hillary Chart

To a remarkable degree, exposure to the Sanders’ ad sapped the emotional enthusiasm for Clinton’s candidacy among Iowa Democrats.

The challenge in advertising, for any brand, is to find the touch points that carry the greatest emotional weight within the target audience, and creatively execute with a compelling narrative.

Indeed, as we find time and time again, the key to social contagion of an idea, be it a commercial or political campaign, is the degree of emotion evoked among those who self-identify with your brand.

Be sure to check in next week to learn the emotional drivers behind the most viral ads from Super Bowl 50. And to learn more about implicit ad testing for your consumer brands or political campaigns, please reach out to us here.

Thanks to to Behavioral Scientist Dr. Nate Decker for his insight and collaboration on this study.

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