A few years ago, Princeton University looked at the relationship between looks and political success. They found that while attractiveness was not necessarily an advantage for a politician, in 70 per cent of elections the politician who looked more competent than their opponent won.
Despite evidence that for evolutionary reasons we make rapid judgements about strangers (we take a view within 34 milliseconds of seeing a picture of someone), this doesn’t necessarily demonstrate that we simply vote on the basis of looks; it could well be that successful politicians look more competent, or those who look competent are selected by their parties for safer seats.
But incontrovertibly, image matters, as Ed Miliband acknowledged when he said: ‘If spin doctors could design a politician, I suspect he wouldn’t look like me.’ Equally, however, British voters can be pretty flexible about looks, as Robin Cook, Ann Widdecombe, Leon Britton and David Mellor could all attest.
So to assist Mr Miliband and others seeking to sell themselves and their looks to the voters over the next few weeks, freuds commissioned YouGov to look at the impact and relevance of looks and images on political impressions.
Image does matter, and voters are becoming less embarrassed about admitting it.
They discovered that if you ask prospective voters questions about image, they are surprisingly forthright, with 40 per cent agreeing that it isn’t shallow to look at the way that a politician looks before making up your mind about their policies, skill and judgement.
But it must be authentic, with an overwhelming 73 per cent believing that voters have become less engaged with politicians because they try to portray themselves as something they are not. 78 per cent of voters also claimed that they didn’t treat men and women differently in this regard, but 46 per cent admitted that they wouldn’t look so favourably on a Prime Ministerial candidate who was “significantly overweight”.
YouGov also showed voters a series of images of David Cameron and Ed Miliband in different settings, and asked them to identify which they found most appealing, if they had to choose and regardless of their views of the politician.
Ever since Margaret Thatcher was photographed holding a two-day old calf in 1979, such photo opportunities have been a staple part of the campaign trail, but which are the most effective?
Both party campaigns could do with a bit more attention to the sunlit uplands.
In both cases the photograph of the party leader with their children in a domestic setting was easily the most appealing (58 per cent selected it as one of the three most appealing images for David Cameron and 53 per cent did so with Ed Miliband), so those of us cynical observers who think that letting the cameras into your home doesn’t work are almost certainly wrong.
Ed Miliband also scored well being photographed with other people’s children (47 per cent thought it appealing), but David didn’t do so well feeding a lamb (maybe he should have gone for a calf as well). With both leaders, the two least appealing photographs were the traditional hard hat images on construction sites, and ‘active’ photos of the politician taking exercise.
Clearly this is not a conclusive answer, but taken together, the evidence seems to suggest that family images which humanise politicans work best, provided of course we believe the politician to be basically competent in the first place.
Interestingly, potential Ukip voters were least enamoured of the family images, which is lucky for Nigel Farage as he’s more often pictured in the saloon bar than a domestic context.
This election is likely to be decided a few very ‘low information voters’.
To explore this issue of imagery a little further, Yougov also asked voters to look at the different campaign posters issued so far by the parties. On the surface at least, the result was an overwhelming victory for positive campaigning, as 66 per cent thought that the only positive image released by either campaign, of a Tory ‘road to a stronger economy’, would have a positive impact on the campaign.
There is also a nod towards the clever, as the relatively witty (by comparison with all the others) Labour poster ‘The Doctor Can’t See You Now’, was the top scorer for Mr Miliband’s party (50 per cent thought it one of the posters most likely to have a positive impact).
Of course, the spin doctors might well say that the negative images still hit home, even if people don’t want to acknowledge it, but it does seem to chime with the wider sense that both party campaigns could do with a bit more attention to the sunlit uplands rather than the valley of despond.
Of course, the spin doctors might well say that the negative images still hit home.
So everyone knows that image does matter, and voters are becoming less embarrassed about admitting it. What they probably wouldn’t admit, but is demonstrated by further US research, is that so-called ‘low information voters’ – in other words those who know little about politics and care less – are more influenced by looks.
Since the election is quite likely to be decided by a few very low information voters in a limited number of swing seats, it’s no wonder that all party leaders are obsessed by their hairstyle, and will be paying careful attention to whether being photographed with a lamb or a nurse is more popular.
Edward Amory is a director of freuds, advising clients including individuals, corporations, and countries on their reputation.
The statistics in this article are based on the results of two online polls conducted by YouGov plc, unless otherwise stated. The first, with fieldwork from 29th-30th March 2015, had a total sample size of 2001 adults. The second, with fieldwork from 12th-13th April, had a total sample size of 2,444 adults. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (18+).