Politics and Fashion: Social Media Commentary
Fashion and politics have always coexisted—voters form impressions about candidates based on what they wear and what they look like. For women in politics, this sensitivity to clothing and appearance is heightened. This isn’t a new phenomenon; studies show that political women have been receiving greater scrutiny than men since the 1800s. Now, with the advent of social media, a candidate’s fashion is often discussed as much as his/her policy stances. And females are more likely than males to provide this commentary.
We at RTC, fascinated as we are by the intersection of fashion, politics and social media, have used our SoundByte™ methodology to dig deeper. We will be following this trend throughout the year.
By Sara Weiner, Associate Director
We analyzed user-generated comments to evaluate trends surrounding politics and fashion, and in doing so we came across some interesting findings about how voters respond to a candidate’s fashion sense. This analysis is part of an ongoing study on the effect of fashion in politics, using social media commentary as a proxy for public opinion. Our initial findings reveal the same thing that social scientists have been reporting for years—fashion matters, and woman are subject to higher scrutiny than men (though men are not immune). This phenomenon goes as far back as 1872, when the media reported on the first female presidential candidate, Victoria Woodhull, and her “dainty high-heeled boots.”1
It is also quantified in Erika Falk’s book, Women for President: Media Bias in Eight Campaigns, which demonstrates how media coverage of presidential elections makes, on average, physical comments in 40% of articles about female candidates, but only in 14% of articles about male candidates.2
With the advent of social media and the impending 2012 elections, we are seeing an influx of fashion commentary on candidates and their spouses. However, even though social media has shifted the power of commentary from the media to the general public, the trend in the 2000s is similar to that found in the 1800s and 1900s.
|Comment on Sarah Palin’s attire:|
Big “miss.” Don't get me wrong; I LOVE a good leopard print shoe... when it's a GOOD leopard print. These just look cheap and tacky.
In our preliminary research we have identified that voters place more emphasis on a female politician’s fashio n than her male counterpart’s, and even more emphasis on female spouses than on male officials. Additionally, we see comments suggesting that male politicians’ fashion faux pas are excusable, but female politicians’ are not. User posts characterize Barack Obama’s “sloppy” casual attire as “just one of the guys,” while Michele Bachmann is criticized for her “horrible shoes,” Sarah Palin for her “hooker shoes,” and Hillary Clinton for her “crappy outfit.”
Scrutiny is not reserved only for women running for office. Our findings showed that the expectation for Michelle Obama far exceeds that of any female presidential candidate, and social media comments about her outfits are some of the easiest to come by.
|Comment on Mitt Romney’s attire:|
It boggles the mind that the richest candidate in the race — an executive, a successful guy — has officially become that schlubby man who gave up on his hair, his clothes, and maybe even his workouts. No, these aren't the things the race is really about. But it is about perceived power, and he looks pretty damn weak.
A scan through the demographics of online commenters shows that an overwhelming majority of fashion-related comments are made by women. With this, we identified a paradox: Female commenters repeatedly emphasize that being stylish and competent are not qualities that should be considered one and the same, yet they continue to comment on a candidate’s attire as if it matters to them (and we’re guessing it does, more than they will admit).
We also found there to be greater negative scrutiny regarding the sartorial choices of candidates who are running for office compared to politicians who are already in office. Our preliminary findings further suggest that once in office, there is less critique of what a politician wears. Implications
Fashion undeniably plays a big part in politics. While our research is qualitative and aggregates individual comments, we can’t help but notice that society has not moved very far away from the same outlook as the 1800s. It’s worth noting that the majority of the political fashion critiques are coming from women, who by any other score, would likely be female political candidates’ biggest supporters.
This makes us wonder: Do women hold politicians to a higher standard, a standard that includes appearance in addition to political capability? Do they know they do this? And if so, is political fashion important in deciding an election outcome? Initial findings, as indicated by social media commentary, point to yes, yes, and yes. Over the course of the 2012 elections, it will be interesting to follow and evaluate this trend and to measure the extent to which political fashion matters. Further research is planned to expand these insights.
The SoundByte™ is a proprietary approach to qualitative research that uncovers consumer sentiment, insights and hidden opportunities by exploring the natural conversation on the social Web. Unlike a listening platform, the SoundByte™ qualifies the people included in the study to ensure they meet your criteria. If you only want to know what women age 45-65 who live in the United States think, we can do that. We can even vet for various affinities and disease states. Next time you are considering a focus group, consider SoundByte™ instead. It’s fast, detailed and surprisingly cost efficient.1 Falk, Erika (2008) Cutting Women Out: The Media’s bias against female presidential candidates. In These Times.