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Beauty and the Beast: From Politics to Poaching, How You Look Can Mean the Difference Between Winning and Losing

By Scott Sobel, MA, Media Psychology, President, Media & Communications Strategies, Inc.

Do you feel more disgusted about the killing of the African Lion Cecil because he was such a majestic, beautiful animal?  Or do you react less compassionately about the death of an endangered but ugly Southeast Asian Sunda Pangolin?


Would you vote for Hillary or The Donald, depending on whom you like more and think is more attractive, regardless of their politics?

Humans are visual beings. Research shows that we make decisions about situations and form opinions about other people we meet for the first time in fewer than 10 seconds. It’s hard to undo those first impressions. It’s even harder to undo initial feelings about other people when their actions and their body language reinforce bad perceptions about them. On the flip side, welcoming and positive gestures made by an attractive or at least pleasant presenter, can spell success.

As public relations practitioners, who are touted as message gurus, we must be aware of the power of visual signals, especially if those visual signals stand in the way of persuading audiences that our client’s message is the right message and our candidate is the right candidate. In the end, political candidates and others who live and die by public perception will not win if they are perceived as unlikable or unattractive  by the majority of voters.

An iconic test of appearance vs. the message was documented by the evaluation of the famous 1960 televised U.S. presidential debate between Richard M. Nixon and the eventual president John F. Kennedy. More than 70-million viewers saw the debate on TV. Nixon was fresh from an operation and looked unshaven, pale and sickly. The younger and more appealing JFK arguably looked great! TV voters who were polled picked Kennedy as the debate champion while the smaller audience of radio listeners actually chose Nixon.

Fast forward to today. I challenge you to find video’s and photos of both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump and look at them both through a critical body language lens. You will see good points and bad points about the appearance of both – their gestures and expressions, their voice quality and even their intonation when responding to journalist question.. Keep a log. Take notes. If you do a fair evaluation, you are likely to pick the outcome of a race between the two, if they eventually run against each other. Compare your own evaluation with current polls and I’ll bet you are not too far off, if you are judging by looks rather than message.

I will list some gestures and actions that affect perception but everyone reading this article is an expert in her own right about how physical appearance influences choices. Put aside a candidate’s message (if you can) and note what is appealing or a turn-off to you. Be especially attentive to the smallest detail, especially what is referred to as “micro-expressions.” Our hard-wired human brains notice the smallest grimace executed in a fraction of a second and other physical attributes or tendencies. These tiny acts and nuanced appearances color our evaluation of a candidate or anyone who is asking for our trust, asking for our vote.

Ask yourself, do the candidates:

  • Look interviewers in the eye?
  • Turn their bodies toward interviewers or hold back, even turning slightly away?
  • Have open-handed gestures, below their shoulders or point fingers or wave hands wildly?
  • Have voices that are well modulated, even in the face of accusations?
  • Have natural and not over-the-top smiles?
  • Sit or stand slightly leaning forward or do they lean away from the people they talk to or with?
  • Cross their legs or fold their arms in defensive positions, use any gesture that look like the candidate is protecting a body part?
  • Have hairstyles, clothes, makeup that instill confidence or ridicule?
  • Don’t answer questions quickly, hesitate, look angry after a question or suck in their breath after a question?
  • Appear wide-eyed, apprehensive, uncomfortable, angry, happy, personable? Notice any physical appearance that supports your personal evaluation.

You get the idea.  Our personal evaluations are based on very basic perceptions of whether we feel we can trust others? Do we feel threatened by them? Do we feel safe and could we work with those who are asking for our approval, our vote?  How does a candidate or presenter trigger the love ‘em or leave ‘em response in our brain’s limbic system?

It’s all about clichés. No matter how cerebral we think we are about judging candidates by their message, it’s been proven time and again that general elections are indeed generally popularity contests in the end.  We want to trust those who we identify with the most or who we admire the most. Popularity is a large factor in beauty contests.

Beauty is absolutely in the eye of the beholder and the more beholders you get to vote for you, the more likely you will win an election or win business after a sales pitch or speech. By the way, when it comes to environmentalists trying to save endangered species, the ugly Southeast Asian Sunda Pangolin doesn’t get as many donations as the majestic lion. There’s a lesson there for our political candidates.