Political storytelling: How it impacts our brains

Do we know something about how politicians use storytelling and how it impacts voters’ brains?

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Storytelling is a promotion strategy with a gigantic persuasive potential, which makes it a powerful tool for political ads. A lot of research has been done on storytelling in digital marketing, revealing that stories make businesses more memorable and increase customer loyalty.

But what about politics? Do we know something about how politicians use storytelling and how it impacts voters’ brains? 

Although we have very little information on the effect of stories in political communication, some studies do paint quite a picture. 

First and foremost, we know that political news can be a major impact on our brain and health. Since the nature of much politics-related news is controversial and strong, they can interfere with everything from physical well-being to emotional stability, this study found.

The research surveyed 800 US adults. The overwhelming majority from the sample claimed that political news made them lose temper, stressed, fatigued, and even seriously think about moving. These results support the claim that politics have a major influence on people’s physical and emotional health and even play a role in making serious life-related decisions.

What happens when we add stories?

Political Campaigns and Storytelling: a Match Made in Heaven?

Penn State has recently cited a study where researchers analyzed 200+ senatorial and gubernatorial campaigns and found that winners had one thing in common. Apparently, the ads with positive autobiographical narratives “performed” better than negative ads.

The narratives involved people describing their personal stories about how a candidate’s policy decisions impacted their lives. The ads had plots, characters, and causal relationships – three essential story elements.

The researchers concluded that using personal stories of voters could be an incredibly powerful political strategy.

“I think the voters’ stories on issues are particularly powerful and that is really prominent in the research that we’ve seen,” Penn State quoted Fuyuan Shen, professor and head of the department of advertising and public relations at Penn State, as saying. “If stories are used in political ads they can potentially be a powerful influence on individuals.”

Indeed, they can.

“The Ashley’s Story”

It’s 2004. Three weeks before the election day. The campaign for George Bush promotes an ad called “Ashley’s Story,” a video about Ashley Faulkner, a 16-year-old girl who lost her mother in the 9/11 attack.

The ad shows Ashley and her dad talking about their experience, and turns to a newspaper page describing how the two had attended a Bush’s campaign event in Lebanon, Ohio. Then-candidate Bush heard about Ashley’s story, embraced, and comforted her, and the photo of this was shown in the ad at the end.

He’s the most powerful man in the world and all he wants to do is make sure I’m safe,” — this was how Ashley described Bush.

A video like that might be anything but extraordinary these days. But the impact of the ad was astonishing for the campaign for Bush.

Although it was 2004, “Ashley’s Story” widely circulated on the internet, got covered in 700+ newspaper articles, and later gained the reputation of the ad that “put Bush over the top.”

The ad was also a major example of how powerful storytelling can be in politics. As Penn State research has shown, storytelling-based ads like “Ashley’s Story” are a common strategy to influence voters, meaning that many politicians are well-aware of this tactic.

Daniel Myers, a professor of political science from the University of Minnesota, reviewed the potential impact of “Ashley’s Story” on American voters in his Storytelling in US Political Campaigns paper.

Here are his suggestions:

  • Unmotivated viewers would judge the ad heuristically, probably because of mentions of the candidate and the tragic event
  • Highly motivated viewers would perceive the candidate as empathetic, based on Ashley’s words and Bush’s treatment of her.

He used the Elaboration Likelihood Model to arrive at these conclusions—a model of persuasion that claims there are different ways people can be convinced of something, depending on how interested and invested they are in the topic.

Adam Graham, a psychology writer, says that many websites that write papers for you use this model to create story-based content like blogs and videos. Apparently, it’s a legit tactic to create convincing advertisements and study customer attitudes towards brands and products.

Having read Myers’s analysis of the ad, it becomes clear that a share of highly invested viewers would be influenced. Many of them would form a perception of Bush as an empathetic person and politician, or at least slightly change their existing perception.

People Want to be the Heroes

Fast-forward to more recent campaigns, and we find storytelling examples all over the place. It’s not only research paper websites and marketing agencies using them, but politicians of all levels.

Perhaps the most successful storytelling examples come from Barack Obama, who used them to grab the attention of voters. 

The stories are a bit different this time. Instead of the candidate being the main hero, it’s the voters and their achievements, hopes, and dreams. 

In his victory speech back in 2008, he newly-elected president Obama mentions Nixon Cooper, a 106-year-old woman from Atlanta. She couldn’t vote because of her skin color and witnessed numerous other important events that shaped American history.

By telling the story of just one voter, Obama reminded the public about the events that happened in the last 100 years. He made a single voter – who many Americans can relate to – a true hero of the story. The story was attention-grabbing, made him look authentic and voters – feel empowered.

Once again, storytelling proved to be a good way to engage voters on a deeper level and even make them the heroes of the story. Obama’s campaigns relied on stories throughout his term in the office, too, to advocate for his projects like the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. Then, he also told stories of Americans who were affected by a lack of healthcare and what the project meant for them.

Political Storytelling: the Future

Political storytelling is an established tactic to influencer voters that prominent politicians have been using for decades. Stories have a powerful effect on many people, and scholars have proven their effectiveness to influence our minds. It’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that stories will continue to be a tool for effective campaigning for politicians of all levels.

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