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Marketing's view of the Presidential voting fiasco

A little over a week ago, thousands of Americans in Floridaís West Palm Beach County marched to their local voting precinct and accidentally chose the wrong man for president. As Al Gore and George W. Bush continue to arm wrestle over the issue, many of us still donít understand one thing: How in the world can so many voters make such a big mistake on a simple voting ballot?

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Itís easier to do than you think.

Marketing experts know that so-called consumer confusion erupts when our ability and opportunity to distinguish among products (or candidates on a ballot) is compromised. It happens all the time, and thatís exactly what occurred in West Palm Beach.

Think about a fictional car advertisement that says the following: The Porsche 91l. The ultimate in luxury, comfort and performance. Here, the carís name and a short list of attributes are grouped together. The human mind automatically associates the two sentences - even though technically and legally they are not linked. In this way, advertisers attract a wide swath of buyers by leveraging their subconscious.

Consumer behaviorists call this "perceptual grouping," and itís a powerful way to undermine votersí ability to make the choice they want. Like the car ad above, the West Palm Beach ballot grouped the candidates in such a way that Goreís punch hole was juxtaposed with Bushís, while Pat Buchananís was not. As a result, some Gore supporters subconsciously associated their candidateís punch hole with Bushís, and voted for the wrong guy. This was a mistake of the mind, not a slip of the hand - and thatís why it cannot be blamed on simple voter carelessness.

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Perceptual grouping isnít the only reason we get confused. Have you ever bought the wrong ingredients for Thanksgiving, or bought the wrong perfume or cologne for your spouse - again? Research shows that when we buy things only occasionally, say once a year, we lack the experience to discern the subtleties among products. That, too, undermines our ability to make the choice we want.

Voting, done once every four years, is no different. Many of West Palm Beachís voters probably forgot or never even knew that it is easy to punch the wrong hole, and therefore may not have taken care at booth. In this way, even if the county had provided crystal-clear ballots, itís very possible that a portion of voters would have made a mistake anyway.

Voter confusion also arises when we are deprived the opportunity to choose correctly. How? For the same reason we make mistakes as consumers nearly every day: abundance of pressure and lack of time and knowledge.

Weíve all chosen the wrong dish at a restaurant because our anticipating waiter and table companions placed an unsaid pressure on us to decide fast. Likewise, long lines of voters may have inadvertently pressured West Palm Beachís citizens to vote quickly and carelessly. That same pressure may have compromised voter senses such that directions from voting officials or instructions on the ballot may have gone unheard or poorly understood. That may be why, despite clear instructions, citizens voted twice.

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Back at the restaurant, we may order wrong because our short lunch hour doesnít afford us the time to study the menu thoroughly; similarly, our busy voters may not have had the time to study the sample ballot thoroughly beforehand. And all of us make mistakes because the waiter didnít tell us that all menu items come, say, slathered in mayonnaise. Well, apparently our West Palm Beach voters werenít told they could get another ballot. Thus, their opportunity to choose as they wished suffered.

While compromised ability and opportunity explain the potential for confusion, it still doesnít answer why confusion ran rampant in this election. Looked at from a marketing perspective, we may have an answer.

When consumers buy products, they often mitigate the factors for confusion with preparation. In this way, our misleading car ad may have no impact on the customer who has already made up his mind. But statistics show that the majority of voters donít decide for whom they will vote until they actually stand in the voting booth. Confronted with this moment of truth, our senses are compromised and, as a result, our vulnerability to confusion skyrockets.

Letís say the ballot had been clear, instructions were given well, and their was no pressure from other voters - would the vote have turned out differently? Thatís a tough call. Confusion is a state of mind, and as such it is impossible to completely control. Indeed, voters who come to the booths upset or excited may become confused no matter how clear the process.

Perhaps we can reach only one conclusion: As Americans, we have the responsibility to vote clear-headed and prepared. And our voting officials have the responsibility to keep things on the level. by Dan Lazar and Debbie MacInnis

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