A Sage Idea

Valentines Day 2014

Just for the record, 18 inches of snow comes up a little over the top of my knees. A lot of it also seems to find its way down the tops of my boots and into my socks. But it's hard to think of too many things as sweet as bright sun on top of fresh snow.

Compare this!

I just came inside after shoveling snow on a frigid morning. It was 6 degrees on the Fahrenheit scale when I went out. My fingers froze to near numbness even through a double set of gloves. How cold was it? It was colder than statistician’s heart in the presence of a fundamental attribution error.

The sun came out shortly after I started shoveling, and except for my fingers and face, the brightness of sun on snow was actually quite enjoyable. I fell into a sweat-producing shoveling rhythm and cleared my entire ring of driveway in less than two hours—certainly no more time than it would have taken me if I had used our gas-powered snow blower, and with a golf-swing-muscles-strengthening bonus for my efforts.

As I was peeling off my layers of sweat-soaked clothing in the mud-room by our back door, my wife asked about the coldness, and I opined about how the sunniness and lack of wind made the experience more pleasant than the low number of Fahrenheit degrees might suggest. Naturally, we had to find out how many degrees there were, and the weather app on my smartphone said the temperature had risen to 11 degrees Fahrenheit.  

Ahh,” she said. “That’s nearly twice as warm!” And out she went cheerily to spread seeds and suet cakes for the greedy horde of birds we support.  Well, only the blue jays and maybe the tufted titmice seem really greedy. Chickadees and juncos get a pass, just on cuteness.

Those words, “twice as warm,” stuck with me.

Yes, 11 is nearly twice as much as 6, but to me, 11 is only slightly less cold than 6. Considering the frozen finger factor, it is certainly not twice as warm. But the numbers suggest that it is. If you want to convince someone else that a temperature of 11 degrees is nearly twice as warm as 6 degrees, you can simply use the numbers and suggest they do the math. Or you can show it to them in graphic form, using a nice bar chart like the one above.

But Fahrenheit is not the only temperature scale in the world, and my wife might not have felt twice as warm if we had been living in France. If that were the case, when I went out to shovel, the temperature would have been minus-14.4 degrees Celsius. Brrr! And when I came in, it would only have risen to minus-11.7.

Even on her most optimistic day, I don’t think my wife would ever have called minus-11.7 “twice as warm.” And whether you consider just the numbers or if you present the temperature change in graphic form, the word “twice” does not come readily to mind.

Meanwhile, to me, the temperature when I went out and the temperature when I came back in were indistinguishable. My fingers and face were cold at the start and stayed cold throughout. My body warmed up with my exertion, so I was really not a good judge anyway. Probably the most accurate and least biasing way to illustrate the change in temperature is through the use of the kelvin scale, which is based on absolute zero. My shoveling took place as the temperature rose from 258.7 degrees (k) to 261.5 degrees (k). No wonder I was sweating!

Writing to Persuade and Get Paid

I am about to start teaching a new course at the Sage College of Albany called “Writing to Persuade and Get Paid.” I plan to explore some of the central themes and lessons of the course in essay format, so if you are a student you can consider this required reading. For anyone else who chances across these words, you are free to choose whether to read on into the next paragraph. I will try to earn your continued attention.

[Students: please remember those last two sentences! Repeat them to yourself before you ask anyone to read anything you write, and then decide whether it might benefit from another round of proofreading and revision.]

This is intended to be a course for good writers and those who want to become better writers. While they may not all have been good or willing listeners, I do not know of any good writers who were not also (and first) good readers, so I suspect there may be greater value in presenting much of the course’s instruction in essay form rather than in-class lectures.

The course was originally going to be called “Writing for Advertising, Marketing & Public Relations,” but that title had too many characters to fit into the digital catalog’s course-title field, so I had to distill it a bit. (At some point I will want to discuss the distilling process, because just as with whiskey and maple syrup, the more you boil it down, the greater the kick. But I digress.)

In this course, we will explore and practice the different writing styles, approaches and mindsets needed to succeed in advertising, public relations, marketing and website applications. One size does not fit all when you are writing to persuade. Approaches that work in advertising will not work in public relations or as website content. Approaches geared for mass audiences such as advertising, public relations and websites are generally not effective for the narrow-focus writing required for marketing plans and business proposals. Each genre requires good, competent writing, but each has specific requirements that are different from the others.

Advertising has to be intrusive and attention-getting because it needs to grab your audiences' attention away from all the other persuasive messages that are competing for their attention. It also has to overcome their reluctance to be the target of unwanted advertising.

Writing for public relations may not call for as much verbal flamboyance as advertising, but it requires an understanding of newsworthiness and relationship building.

Marketing plans and business proposals need to provide a compelling, credible story that shows (not just explains) why your product, service, business or idea is going to provide tangible and emotionally satisfying rewards if your target audience takes the action you are advocating.

Website content is different from the three types of writing described above in that it is usually something your target audience is actively searching for, so instead of needing to convince reluctant audiences to pay attention, your job is to reward time-pressured and frustrated searchers for having found what they have been looking for.

In each case, you will need to understand your audiences’ objectives as well as your own. And you will achieve your greatest success when you understand that achieving your audiences’ objectives is the most certain route to achieving your own.

The Nature of Political Humor

Q. Is political humor always anti-establishment?

A. Only the funny stuff.

Humor tends to be diminishing. When it diminishes others, it reflects poorly on the character of those who deliver it—unless they are professional comedians, and even then, it can be received poorly. 

Humor directed at the political positions of the weak, unfortunate or unpopular comes across as cruel and demeaning. Not that this kind of humor has not always had an audience… how many offensive racist, sexist, and ethnic jokes have you heard in your lifetime? Imagine how often they were used before harassment laws were enacted.

There is a bit of an exception to this position: the jokes about enemies. Stereotypes of fat sausage-and-sauerkraut-eating Germans and near-sighted buck-toothed Japanese may have helped the Allied WWII efforts by further defining the “Us against Them” scenario.

In the absence of war, this kind of humor still tends to perpetuate Us against Them values such as those held by racists, sexists and xenophobes. 

But when humor is directed at oneself—self-diminishing humor—it tends to show an appealing side to the self-diminisher’s character. You're going to like me more if I make myself the butt of a joke rather than you. 

There’s always room for self-deprecating humor from the Establishment. The endearing enduring jokes from political heroes tend to be mocking of themselves:


"I have often wanted to drown my troubles, but I can't get my wife to go swimming."

—Jimmy Carter.

"I have orders to be awakened at any time in the case of a national emergency, even if I'm in a cabinet meeting."

—Ronald Reagan.

"I'm glad I'm not Brezhnev. Being the Russian leader in the Kremlin, you never know if someone's tape recording what you say."

—Richard Nixon.

"I have opinions of my own - strong opinions - but I don't always agree with them."

—George W. Bush.

"Politics is supposed be the second oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first."

—Ronald Reagan.

"You can tell a lot about a fellow's character by his way of eating jellybeans."

—Ronald Reagan.

"People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like."

—Abraham Lincoln.


style="font-family: arial, helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 18px;">Abraham Lincoln:

If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one? 


Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt. 


It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues.

Three Political Questions for Exploration in 2014

Inequality, healthcare and protecting the environment are probably the top three issues about which the U.S. Congress will talk much but do little. What does that leave for the restless among the rest of us?

Here are three things I resolve to look into this year (and you can help by sending links to related items that might shed light on any of them): 

1) Can humor be an effective lever for changing public opinion?

From Aristophanes and Jonathan Swift to Will Rogers, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, satirists have tried to use the public entertainment stage to promote political reform. Humor tends to be a self-defeating tactic, however. (It’s just not serious.) Sure, the studio audience is laughing, but they already bought tickets. Can humor persuade that silent majority outside? And if so, how?

2) How can we know when they’re lying? (Aside from “They move their lips.”) And is lying more effective than truth, honesty and logic?

Jews eating babies. Weapons of mass destruction. Swift boats. Secret Muslim middle names. Is there a way to decode the lies, or insulate ourselves from them, or combat them, or learn how to use them ourselves?

3) Is fiction more effective than “public affairs” programming for changing social and political behavior and cultural values?

Film roles played by John Wayne and Gary Cooper were the cultural models that made it possible for Ronald Reagan to get away with “There you go again,” and GW Bush to get away with “Bring it on” without their having two honest or competent brain cells to rub together between them. Can we create new fictional heroes whose values won’t lead our children into a genocidal, gun-totin’, eye-for-an-eye kind of future?

Who Would YOU Listen To?

Who do YOU think would be more influential in persuading people to support vaccination against the human papillomavirus—a scourge that causes cervical cancer and thousands of deaths each year?

Most people would guess the authoritative-looking woman doctor on the left. After all, how much influence could a non-expert like the Middle School student on the right be expected to wield? 

That was the focus of my study of spokesperson expertise. 

Universal HPV vaccination would save more than 3,000 lives annually in the United States, and more than 350,000 worldwide. It makes sense. Its benefits seem almost inarguable. But there is a huge amount of opposition, largely distributed along political and ideological lines. 

This is the intersection of health, science and politics. Mistrust and disbelief in evidence-based science and the recommendations of scientists are widespread and distributed along partisan lines. 

It is hard to prove any immediate life-and-death consequences to rejection of evolution or denial of the possibility of human agency in climate change. But with HPV and cervical cancer, the consequences are clear, present and immediate. We can document that partisan opposition to HPV vaccination is killing people right now.

The results of my study suggest that people who are inclined to oppose HPV vaccination are more likely to listen to pro-vaccination messages from an obviously non-expert spokesperson (in this study, an innocent-looking middle school student) than from an expert (in this study, an authoritative-looking woman doctor).

In my study, 474 adults were randomly divided into three groups. One group was instructed to read some basic, neutral information about the HPV virus and a pro-vaccination advocacy message attributed to the woman doctor. 

A second group was instructed to read the same basic information about the HPV virus and the same pro-vaccination advocacy message, but for this group the message was attributed to the middle school student.

The third group read the same basic information about the HPV virus, but received no advocacy message. Members of all three groups were also instructed to rate themselves politically as either Progressive, Centrist or Conservative. 

After completing their reading assignments, the subjects were surveyed about their attitudes toward HPV vaccination.

The attitude-scores of the control group (the ones who read only basic information but received no advocacy message) showed how favorability toward HPV vaccination is skewed along partisan political lines. The more conservative the individual, the more opposed to HPV vaccination that person was likely to be.


Displaying the results for all three groups side-by-side (see chart below), it is clear that Centrists and Conservatives—those more likely to be opposed to vaccination—are more positively influenced by the Non-Expert spokesperson than the Expert. 

For both Centrists and Conservatives, attitudes among those who read the advocacy message from the Non-Expert were significantly more positive than among those who received no advocacy message. There was no such significant difference in attitudes of those who read the advocacy message attributed to the Expert.

With Centrists, in fact, attitudes toward vaccination among those who received the advocacy message delivered by the Expert were virtually identical to those who received no advocacy message at all. 

Among Progressives — who tend to favor HPV vaccination to begin with — attitudes toward HPV vaccination were more more positively influenced by the Expert than the Non-Expert.

Since virtually all pro-vaccination campaigns are spearheaded by people who favor vaccination, it seems likely that the tendency to rely on expert authorities as public advocates for vaccination may be the result of unexamined and untested assumptions that what influences Progressives will influence everyone.

The Politics of HPV Vaccination Advocacy

My paper, "The politics of HPV vaccination advocacy: Effects of source expertise on the effectiveness of a pro-vaccine message," has just been accepted for presentation to the New York State Communication Association conference, which will be held in Ellenville, NY, on October 18-20, 2013.

The paper reports on a survey-based study that suggests non-expert spokespeople can be more effective advocates for controversial science-based policies than authoritative experts.

I will try to present details of the research and follow-up studies in future posts.  

Ad Data: Links to a couple of interesting articles

Are we making our choices and decisions based on our own objective, rational, informed analysis of each situation? 

Most of the time, probably not.

Here are links to a couple of interesting Ad Age articles that reveal how data analysis is being used by others to influence our decisions.

No surprise to a billion annoyed Facebook subscribers, social media is still having difficulty justifying its commercial value. But to their probable dismay, those annoying pop-up ads are not likely to go away. After analyzing mountains of data, one of the world’s most astute marketers has found that social media “buzz” has a negligible effect on sales, but that online ad impressions are just about as effective as TV ad impressions.  

How analysis of customer use and demographic data has led to potentially profitable choices about recipe ingredients for Kraft Foods, convenience store distribution locations for the Sierra Nevada brewing company, and a coupon cross-promotion for SkinnyGirl low-calorie cocktails.

The Potato Chip (Crisp) Perspective

From The Economist (November 24th-30th, 2012, “Naming names,” p.16), on putting the more than $6 billion spent on the 2012 election into perspective:

 …when you consider that Americans were electing on November 6th not just the president but 435 congressmen and 33 senators in a vast country of 330m people, where electioneering is primarily conducted by paid television advertisements, the figure may not seem quite so high. Americans spend more than that every year in potato crisps.

Which might also help explain our problem with obesity.

The Name of Success

Do candidates with shorter names have a better chance of being elected? There is good reason to guess this may be true, especially in local elections.

A typical political yard sign is 26 inches wide and 16 inches high. For a local election, these yard signs often comprise a major part of the campaign. They tend to be very simple in design and message. Most such signs carry no more than the name of a candidate and the office the candidate is running for.

The ubiquitous presence of these signs in the weeks leading up to an election is a reflection of the importance of building name recognition for the candidates. Studies have shown that seeing a name over and over again does more than simply increase awareness and memorability of the name. This visual repetition also creates greater comfort, acceptance and positive feelings associated with the name.

Evolutionary psychology suggests this positive reaction may be hard-wired into us. The need to survive has programmed us to pay attention to new features of our environment and to regard them as potential dangers until proven otherwise. If, after many encounters with the feature it has not attempted to eat us, it can be judged to be benign—a familiar and accepted part of our lives. Similarly, it can be projected that the more often we see a particular road sign, the friendlier it will seem to be. 

So much for the importance of the yard signs. But what about the impact of the messages they carry? In the local election just completed in my community, two races in particular were suggestive of a larger pattern. 

In one case, a congressional race, a man named Gibson was running against a man named Schreibman. When sized to fit into yard-sign spaces, their names look like this (the font is Arial Narrow Bold): 

In the other election, five candidates were competing for two available seats on the State Supreme Court. Sized to fit into yard-sign spaces, their names look like this: 

So, are you curious about the results? Admittedly, the sample size is extremely small, but they suggest the value of a larger study: with one barely outlying exception (Malone & Kavanagh, who were separated by less than a percentage point), relative font-point size was perfectly correlated with electoral success:

Recent Posts

  1. Valentines Day 2014
    Friday, February 14, 2014
  2. Compare this!
    Sunday, January 26, 2014
  3. Writing to Persuade and Get Paid
    Monday, January 20, 2014
  4. The Nature of Political Humor
    Friday, January 03, 2014
  5. Three Political Questions for Exploration in 2014
    Thursday, January 02, 2014
  6. Who Would YOU Listen To?
    Sunday, September 01, 2013
  7. The Politics of HPV Vaccination Advocacy
    Wednesday, August 21, 2013
  8. Ad Data: Links to a couple of interesting articles
    Tuesday, March 19, 2013
  9. The Potato Chip (Crisp) Perspective
    Saturday, January 26, 2013
  10. The Name of Success
    Wednesday, December 19, 2012

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