Few things in the persuasion business are more misused than polls. Today’s example from the political world: the Zogby polling purporting to show that Oprah Winfrey’s support for presidential candidate Barack Obama is making no difference.
I have no idea how Winfrey impacts Obama. But I do know asking people a “less likely/more likely” poll question sheds absolutely no light on the matter.
Here’s why. People don’t like to admit that they are heavily influenced by outside forces, particularly forces regarded as superficial in society, such as celebrities. They don’t admit it to pollsters, because they don’t admit it to themselves. They wear Nike because they made their own considered choice, not because they want to be like Nike endorsers.
If you ask people whether they are more or less likely to buy a product after seeing an ad, people will vehemently deny the ad influences them. I’ve seen it on issue-after-issue and product-after-product. To do otherwise would be to admit that you are a shallow, powerless automaton.
But, the soda, beer and cigarette companies that advertise the most, sell the most. Not a coincidence.
Understand, it’s not that we are lying to pollsters. It’s that we don’t understand how outside influences shape our thinking in the backs of our brains. Just like people don’t see a Coke ad and immediately say “oh my gosh, that ad will make me purchase Coke,” people don’t see Oprah promoting Obama and immediately say “that endorsement will make me vote for Obama.” To do so would be to admit powerlessness, something we all are reluctant to do. And to do so would be to exhibit more self awareness than we possess.
But the information from the Coke ads gets filed away in the brain and bounces around in ways we don’t understand, while week-after-week we find ourselves quite unconsciously reaching for Coke on the shelf instead of the lightly advertised champion of blind taste tests, RC Cola.
Likewise the endorsement of Obama by one of the most popular and admired people in the world is bouncing around in Americans heads in ways we don’t really understand. I don’t know how Americans are going to process that information. But my point is that asking a more likely/less likely question in a poll is about the most superficial way to gauge that that I can imagine.
Full Disclosure: I support Obama, and for reasons I don’t fully understand, wear the same teddy bear print Karen Neuberger pajamas that Oprah does.