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More repetition of the repetition subject: perceptual fluency, likability and yard signs.

Does the mere exposure of a name or image drive votes?  Can repeated exposures of a yard sign make you more likable?

Ask political consultants about yard signs, and you’re more likely than not to get a groan of some sort.  Even those that think they work seem to hate them – because no matter what, if you’re involved in a campaign, you’re going to get calls about stolen yard signs, defaced yard signs, not enough yard signs at x location, too many of your opponent’s yard signs at y location, etc.  They have to be printed, stored, and adequately distributed.  They’re in every staffer’s car.  It’s a massive pain – and they’re ultimately expensive.

At the heart of the argument against yard signs, however, is their limited utility from a messaging standpoint. It’s not realistic for people to see much more than the name as their driving by.  Does that really do anything?

To a much lesser extent, the question of limited real estate also influences the choice to do banner advertising, since – similar to yard signs – the space for the message is fairly limited.  (Though most online ads tend to be animated gifs that rotate and allow for one to two sentences worth of messaging.)

Familiarity breeds… complements?

As it turns out – mere exposure helps. In fact, it’s called the “mere exposure effect”.  It’s been studied for decades – using words, symbols, and even people. It’s the opposite of “familiarity breeds contempt.”

In the article above, processing fluency was discussed in the context of repetitive song lyrics – and the same mechanics apply here.  Repetition and familiarity with the words (in this case a name) leads to greater processing fluency.

More importantly, this exposure and fluency leads to more positive feelings about the thing/person being exposed.

One study directly tested the mere exposure theory as it relates to online ads.  The study, published in Journal of Consumer Research and conducted by Xiang Fang, Surendre Sing, and Rohini Ahlwalia (“An Examination of Different Explanations for the Mere Exposure Effect”) showed that the mere exposure of online ads – essentially viewed impressions – have a positive effect on likeability. THIS IS HUGE:

“[R]epeated incidental exposures to banner ads, just under the level of perception, increased perceptual fluency and resulted in more positive evaluations… One practical implication of this research is that online advertisers might be placing excessive emphasis on the click-through rates—the primary metric for measuring the effectiveness of online ads. Our results suggest that even when there is no overt sign of effectiveness, such as recognition or click through, the banner ads may still impact ad liking.”

But the “mere exposure” effect goes beyond fluency and likability: it turns out that even changing something into an easier font can improve it’s perceived trustworthiness.

The Boston Herald’s Drake Burnett in 2010  reported:

“Psychologists have determined, for example, that shares in companies with easy-to-pronounce names do indeed significantly outperform those with hard-to-pronounce names. Other studies have shown that when presenting people with a factual statement, manipulations that make the statement easier to mentally process – even totally nonsubstantive changes like writing it in a cleaner font or making it rhyme or simply repeating it – can alter people’s judgment of the truth of the statement, along with their evaluation of the intelligence of the statement’s author and their confidence in their own judgments and abilities.”

One practical application of this trustworthiness applies to cause related marketing (CRM) – when a company hooks up with a charity, to do good while enhancing it’s own branding and/or sales.

Professor Dan Rice of LSU and his colleague Andrew Kua have studied perceptual congruence (and the resulting fluency) within cause related marketing, and how similar fonts/colors and perceptual cues influence the sucess or affinity of brands and causes that would otherwise not be paired.  (i.e. Project RED in support of AIDS research/funding and Coca-Cola.)  Firms don’t have to have a similar “conceptually congruent” mission to benefit from the fluency.  “The present research, however, indicates that any form of congruence, whether conceptual or perceptual, can have a positive impact on participation intentions,” they wrote.

That there doesn’t even have to be a cognitive relationship between the two entities for there to be a positive effect – just the visual or auditory similarity led to success in the marketing – has implications in political advertising as well.

PsyPology’s analysis

Before the sign printers get too giddy, it’s worth mentioning that research (and collective campaign experience) also shows that the mere exposure effect has limits.  The positive effect that comes from perceptual fluency or exposure is going to mean more in a low information race – like a down ballot school board or city commission race – than in highly covered and talked about state or federal race.

For the same reasons, however, this research DOES support an argument to do signs and/or banner ads at the beginning of larger campaigns featuring lesser known candidates, when people know the least, to set a more positive environment for the messaging to come.  (Or perhaps, right before  a television, direct mail,  or pre-roll campaign as a means of increasing fluency among low-information voters.)

In a low information, down ballot race – exposures of the name itself, whether it’s through yard signs or banner impressions, are a no brainer.  The research supports it.

By the way, no discussion of yard signs would be complete without referencing this article, from the Onion:


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About the Author

Brian Franklin
Brian Franklin
PsyPology™ Founder and Editor

Brian Franklin is President of Impact Politics and founder/editor of PsyPology™ - political consulting's first blog providing psychology intel specifically for campaign operatives. Brian has provided marketing strategy, creative direction, language development, and writing services to over a hundred political campaigns, organizations, agencies, and corporations. He has led Impact Politics' work for numerous federal, state, county candidate, ballot initiative, public advocacy, and non-profit campaigns, as well as ad development and online media strategy for  international advocacy campaigns.

Brian is a Board Member of the American the American Association of Political Consultants and co-Chair of their Technology Committee. He is the author of a recent feature article in Campaigns and Elections magazine, “The Slow Boom of Campaign Technology.” In addition to his leadership role in the American Association of Political Consultants, Brian is also a member of the International Association of Political Consultants, Society for Consumer Psychology, Behavioral Science and Policy Association, and the International Society of Political Psychology.

Brian's work has earned prestigious national awards, such as the Pollie Awards for Best Overall Internet Campaign, Best Overall Campaign Use of Negative Contrast, Best Use of Facebook Advertising, Best Use of Search Engine Advertising, Best Use of Humor in an Online Ad, Best Online Ads, and more. Brian has also won a Campaigns and Elections Reed Award for Best Online Targeting.M/div>