New research focuses on how industries and activists use persuasion to gain public support on ballot measures

New research co-authored by University of San Diego marketing professor Andrea Godfrey Flynn describes how industries and activists try to persuade the public to support their positions on important issues. Flynn, accompanied by two researchers from Boston College, published a new article in the Log marketing entitled “How industries use direct persuasion to the public in political disputes: asymmetries in responses to public votes.” Researchers examined the practice of direct public persuasion, a key policy influence strategy used to gain public support on contested issues when industry practices are opposed by activist groups.

The research comes at a good time given the national attention garnered by Proposition 22, a successful 2020 California ballot initiative that gives transportation and delivery companies in the gig economy the legal right to treat drivers as independent contractors. The companies that sponsored Proposition 22 (including Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash) spent an estimated $200 million on direct television and ad campaigns (more than 10 times the spending of groups opposed to the industry-sponsored proposition). Analysts believe the industry publicity helped turn voters’ opinions to push through the proposal and give the industry a win. Immediately after this success, industry leaders pledged to overhaul labor laws across the country.

“Our results indicate distinctive differences in how voters respond to arguments from the industry side versus how they respond to arguments from the activist side,” said co-author Andrea Godfrey Flynn. “The differences are driven by voters’ assessments of the strength and suspicion of each side’s arguments and whether the arguments highlight financial or societal factors.”

The researchers developed a direct-to-public persuasion framework and tested their predictions with a field study that captured changes in public attitudes and voting on two California ballot measures from the 2016 U.S. election. The first , Proposition 56, proposed an increase in the tax on tobacco products and the second, Proposition 61, proposed new price standards for prescription drugs.

The tobacco and pharmaceutical industries have battled health activists for public support using persuasive arguments presented in expensive advertisements (including television, direct mail, and social media) and public relations campaigns. The researchers used three follow-up experiments to examine the specific persuasion strategies used by opposing parties.

Follow-up experiments show which argument strategies work best for each side. Arguments focused on finances (e.g., new price regulations will increase prescription drug costs for individuals) work best on the industry side, while societal-focused arguments (e.g. regulating prescription drug prices will provide better access to life-saving drugs) are more effective for the activist side, but the activist side gets a greater competitive advantage by using societal arguments than the industry party uses financial arguments.

“Our findings offer practical guidance for marketers in future ballot initiatives, including those working with industry associations and public interest and activist groups, in terms of shaping their messages to be most effective in gaining public support. Overall, industry groups may be more successful with a narrow, finance-focused argument strategy and raising skepticism about their opponents’ tactics, while activist groups may be better served by broader, society-focused arguments with ironclad strength,” Flynn added.

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