Messages that Discourage Voting

Because I'm always crafting marketing messages for clients, I maintain on ongoing interest in which types of messages are the most effective—direct vs. nuanced, shorter vs. longer, positive vs. negative.

Of course, there is no definitive answer. Context matters. For example in an earlier blog post, I mention research indicating that positive marketing messages generally work best when a consumer has time to ponder a purchase, while negative ones work better when time is tight. For example, "Give yourself a memorable vacation!" might work well in March while "Don't get stuck at home!" is more likely to be effective in the days before a summer break.

In our political environment, which types of messages will drive voter turnout? (I aim to make this blog non-political, but in this intense election season, politics are hard for me to ignore.)

An academic study by political scientists done in conjunction with a non-partisan group called, which promotes voter registration and participation, finds that negative messages about voting decrease interest in the activity.'s currently best performing message on Google AdWords is "Registering is quick, easy, & free." This message served as the control message while the study experimented with messages like:

  • Be heard this election
  • Wealthy buying elections
  • The system is rigged
  • Your voice is not yet being heard

Although the first message in the above list, "Be heard this election" which is a positive and encouraging one, performed on par with the control message, the other ones performed markedly worse. The two messages drawing attention to corruption and inequality did particularly poorly.  "Wealthy buying elections" and "The system is rigged" reduced clicks by 47% and 44% respectively in comparison with the control "Registering is quick, easy, & free"

Donald Trump has been claiming recently that he may lose because the election is "rigged" (and let's put aside whether or not this claim has merit). In a way, this message could be motivating to supporters. Trump's image among his base and the reason he snagged the nomination have to do with his positioning as an outsider. He claims the media and establishment politicians are against him, which resonates among people who don't like the media or standard-issue politicians. Claiming rigged elections reinforces his politically incorrect image, and that could motivate his fans.

But while this message could generate cheers at his rallies, will it have the ultimate effect of motivating his supporters to vote? This study suggests that it should have the opposite effect and depress turnout. When people feel that their vote doesn't matter, they're less inclined to exercise that right. In other words, when Trump says "The system is rigged," he might as well be saying "Don't bother to vote because there's no point," and therefore the message is likely counterproductive to his ostensible goal of winning the election.


Source: "How Setting the Agenda Can Backfire: The Effect of Rhetoric about Political Inequality on Citizen Engagement," (June 2016) by Adam Seth Levine and Robyn L. Stiles