Priming and political messaging

In other words, it’s not enough for an ad simply to be clever or have good visuals. It also has to connect with the audience at a time when voters are primed to pay attention to the message.

The use of “primed” in this article caught my attention. It ties into an earlier post about “agenda setting” in political communication. I wrote there about the media’s role in agenda setting for Trump. Priming is closely linked to agenda setting, though the exact relationship is not always clearly defined.  As a useful examination of political messaging and an interesting intellectual exercise, I’ve applied the two concepts using the “Quotes” ad example cited in the article.

Agenda setting is the starting point. It crucial to understand here that the media do not tell us what to think, but rather what to think about.  This provides a context for public discussion of an issue, setting the stage for audience understanding, both at conscious and subconscious level.  For a political message such as the one described in article to produce results, there has to be an effective agenda setting process in place. In this case, one that conveys the idea that Trump is “anti-women”.

Priming is the ongoing effect of exposure to agenda setting. It influences the behaviour of individuals over a period of time making them receptive to the political message. That explains the reason why the ad was more effective two weeks after its release, rather than immediately. The audience was not primed for the message when initially exposed to the ad. However, the coverage of a subsequent event started an agenda setting process that over time primed them to be more receptive towards it.

When the ad was first released and initially tested, Trump’s attitudes toward women, although controversial, were not a prime topic of political conversation. But then, on March 30, in a town hall interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, Trump said that “there has to be some form of punishment” for women who have illegal abortions.

As news rapidly spread about the remark, Trump’s campaign tried to walk it back, issuing a statement saying that Trump believed that doctors who perform abortions should be punished, but not the women who undergo the procedures. The conflicting statements only heightened coverage of the issue.

Agenda Setting in Trump’s Triumph

A note about one of the many things that struck me while observing the Republican primaries. I thought it an interesting exercise to evaluate this using the agenda setting marketing theory.

Agenda-setting theory describes the “ability [of the news media] to influence the salience of topics on the public agenda.”

Using this, it is apparent that  media’s overwhelming coverage of the Trump campaign acted to prime the electorate to be open to his messaging. This is consistent with the role of the media in an agenda setting context. They did not tell the voters what to think about Trump. Rather, by talking about his attributes, they directed a receptive primary voter audience to Trump and his messaging.

The media’s coverage told voters that:

  • Trump is interesting.
  • Trump is different.
  • Trump is an outsider.

Given the current zeitgeist is anti-establishment, this created a perfect platform for Trump to push his message. With social media providing campaigners their own publishing platforms, the role of media organisations will be increasingly confined to that of agenda setting, while their role as opinion makers will continue to diminish.