Tuesday 24 March 2009

Appeals to ignorance

Grossman and Helpman's classic model posits that informed voters are attracted by parties' policies, always voting for the party whose policy position is closest to their own ideal point, and that uninformed voters are swayed by advertising. This then gives room for lobby groups to contribute funds to politicians willing to move away from the median informed voter's preferred policy position and towards the lobby group's ideal position. The politician then uses the acquired funds to buy advertising. How far policy moves depends on the steepness of the isovote curves: how quickly informed voters shy away from parties deviating from their preferred position, and how effective advertising is in attracting uninformed voters.

Recent work by Ekant Veer and reported in the New Zealand Herald shows that uninformed voters are indeed far more responsive to celebrity endorsements than are informed voters.
Bath University's Dr Ekant Veer said while endorsement in the United States had long been part of the landscape and peaked last year with huge numbers of celebrities who openly backed Barack Obama's presidential campaign, Westminster democracies used celebrities rarely because of doubts about their credibility.

However, in research to be published in the European Journal of Marketing, the former Waikato University student has found good reason to turn that assumption on its head. Using advertisements which featured celebrities and non-celebrities, he asked 316 participants whether they would vote for the British Conservative Party.

He found that while endorsements did not work on those who rated themselves as having a high level of political understanding, for those who knew or cared little about politics the effects of having a celebrity on board made them more likely to vote for the party.

Academics who admit to half-hating their research results are rare, but that is where Dr Veer finds himself because political party strategists are likely to more effectively target celebrity endorsements to particular groups, he says.

"I hate the idea that a politician can pick this up and go 'sweet, we don't need people to think, we just need to find the biggest celebrity'. That's not good enough in my mind."

It's not surprising that those without much political knowledge will use celebrity or other endorsements as a way of making decisions. Indeed, much of the work on political ignorance suggests that this kind of cue-taking behaviour can enable the politically uninformed to vote as though they were informed. Unfortunately, much of that work is question-begging: if you can't decide for whom to vote, how can you decide to whom to listen for political cues? It really just pushes the problem back a step. Who's more likely to draw more votes for a candidate: an economist saying that candidate X's policy would improve economic growth by a percentage point more than candidate Y's policy, or some rugby or cricket star saying that candidate Y is a good fellow?

Veer goes on to argue for non-partisan celebrity "get out the vote" campaigns. Unfortunately, that seems likely to draw the least informed voters to the polls. Since we know that the politically uninformed are systematically biased compared to the politically informed, it's rather unclear to me why this is desirable.

HT on the Veer study: Phil Ascroft.


  1. EC. Why is this any different from getting a celebrity to advertise any product? I'm guessing but I would think that uninformed buyers of anything are more likely to be swayed by advertising. Why should politics be any different?

  2. The difference is that when I use a celebrity endorsement to help in a product decision, I can tell pretty quickly whether or not the product is any good and I bear the costs of my decision. In politics, not so much.