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Press Release From the Journal of Marketing: How Industries and Activists Can Use Direct-to-Public Persuasion—and Win

Marilyn Stone

Researchers from Boston College and University of San Diego published a new article in the Journal of Marketing that examines the practice of direct-to-public persuasion, a key political influence strategy used to gain public support on contested issues when industry practices are opposed by activist groups.

The study, forthcoming in the Journal of Marketing, is titled “How Industries Use Direct-to-Public Persuasion in Policy Conflicts: Asymmetries in Public Voting Responses” and is authored by Kathleen Seiders, Andrea Godfrey Flynn, and Gergana Nenkov.

Proposition 22, a successful 2020 California ballot initiative, gives gig economy ride hailing and delivery companies the legal right to treat drivers as independent contractors. The companies sponsoring Proposition 22 (including Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash) spent roughly $200 million on television and direct advertising campaigns (more than 10 times the spending of the groups opposing the industry-sponsored proposition). Analysts believe that industry advertising helped flip voter opinion to pass the proposition and give the industry a victory. Immediately after this success, industry leaders pledged to remake labor laws throughout the country. 
The consequences of the Proposition 22 vote illustrate the important and far-reaching impact of effective direct-to-public persuasion. In the scenarios studied, industries invested in persuasion campaigns to protect their practices in battles over prescription drug pricing, tobacco product taxes, renewable energy standards, and recycling policies.
Industries have resource advantages relative to their activist group opponents that suggest they should win policy issue battles. Pre-election polls often report majority support for the activist side, reflecting the public’s predisposition to be more skeptical of the industry side and its motives. The fact that industries frequently prevail suggests that they overcome the public’s skepticism with effective arguments. The public’s response to competing industry versus activist campaigns is somewhat of a mystery. This research helps explain these voting outcomes. 
The researchers developed a direct-to-public persuasion framework and tested their predictions with a field study that captured changes in the public’s attitudes and voting on two California ballot measures from the 2016 U.S. election. The first, Proposition 56, proposed a tobacco product tax increase and the second, Proposition 61, proposed new prescription drug price standards.

The tobacco and pharmaceutical industries battled healthcare activists for public support using persuasive arguments presented in expensive advertising (including television, direct mail, and social media) and PR campaigns. We used three follow-up experiments to examine specific persuasion strategies used by the opposing sides.

Results indicate distinctive differences, or asymmetries, in how voters respond to industry side persuasion compared to how they respond to activist side persuasion. The differences are driven by voters’ evaluations of how strong and how suspicious each side’s arguments are. As Seiders explains, “We discovered that industry and activist arguments play a key role in voting decisions, but industry arguments have less impact than activist arguments. Strong activist arguments have more impact than strong industry arguments. However, suspicion of activist side arguments has more impact than suspicion of industry side arguments.”
Follow-up experiments show which argumentation strategies work best for each side. Financially focused arguments work best for the industry side while societally focused arguments are more effective for the activist side, but the activist side gains more competitive advantage using societal arguments than the industry side does using financial arguments.
These findings offer unique insights. The asymmetries are relevant for marketers and practitioners who design and implement direct-to-public campaigns; for example, industry associations, consultancies, and public interest activist groups. “Since the activist side often has an early advantage, it needs to retain initial supporters with strong arguments and counterarguments. The industry side must focus on acquiring voters with arguments that highlight the hidden costs of the proposed policy change and encourage voter skepticism of activist tactics” says Flynn.
The research also has implications for the public policy community and broader societal relevance. Nenkov says “Given the consequential outcomes of the ballot measure venue we study for industries and activist groups, such as the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries and healthcare activists in our context, and continued increases in funding, our findings argue for more emphasis on the transparency of support for the opposing sides’ campaigns. This includes, but is not limited to, comprehensive information about donors and the extent of their financial support.” Considering the importance of the issues, the major role of advertising, and the complex public perceptions of the opposing sides, it makes sense that policy makers should facilitate increased information to voters about major funding sources and the standard of truth they are held to.

Full article and author contact information available at:

About the Journal of Marketing 

The Journal of Marketing develops and disseminates knowledge about real-world marketing questions useful to scholars, educators, managers, policy makers, consumers, and other societal stakeholders around the world. Published by the American Marketing Association since its founding in 1936, JM has played a significant role in shaping the content and boundaries of the marketing discipline. Christine Moorman (T. Austin Finch, Sr. Professor of Business Administration at the Fuqua School of Business, Duke University) serves as the current Editor in Chief.

About the American Marketing Association (AMA) 

As the largest chapter-based marketing association in the world, the AMA is trusted by marketing and sales professionals to help them discover what is coming next in the industry. The AMA has a community of local chapters in more than 70 cities and 350 college campuses throughout North America. The AMA is home to award-winning content, PCM® professional certification, premiere academic journals, and industry-leading training events and conferences.

Marilyn Stone is Director, Academic Communities and Journals, American Marketing Association.