Guest Post, Political Ads — March 12, 2014

GUEST POST: What the Koch brothers’ debunked Boonstra ad has to teach us about communicating with facts


“I can’t hear you with all these facts I don’t believe in in the way…”

The following post is by my friend Emma White, a specialist in communications and messaging. In the wake of the epic fail of the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity ad featuring Dexter, Michigan resident Julie Boonstra, Emma’s observations & commentary on the difficulty of using facts to change opinions are critical for all of us to understand.

Please welcome Emma to Eclectablog for her first guest post.

“‘I personally do not believe that,” Julie Boonstra said when confronted with the fact that Obamacare will save her more than $1,000 a year. It’s easy to laugh (or feel sympathy, as Chris has suggested) when presented with such an extreme example of holding onto belief in the face of evidence to the contrary. But instead I’d like to suggest that we use this story as a lesson about the challenges of trying to persuade with facts.

Have you ever had the experience of presenting a friend or family member with long list of facts to support your position on the minimum wage or reproductive rights or another topic, only to have them dig in deeper and deeper as you talk? As Ms. Boonstra’s story illustrates so sharply, when facts come into conflict with our deep-seated values or beliefs, we tend to discard the facts and keep the values. In this case, Ms. Boonstra beliefs about government so strongly influence her view about Obamacare that she resists the evidence undercutting her views, even when it has financial benefit to her personally. But this pattern is true not only for her, or for conservatives, but for all of us.

Social science and opinion research are full of examples where explaining the facts to a skeptical public either makes no impact or backfires and encourages skeptics resist: the safety and efficacy of vaccines is one. The reality of human-made climate change is another.

I have moderated dozens of focus groups where participants rejected the facts I presented in favor of their values. Liberal mothers refused to believe the health threats posed by toxic chemicals in the products they bought because it challenged their notion of themselves as good mothers who protect their children. Conservative men told me that the U.S. could not be torturing prisoners overseas or holding people indefinitely without trial because “we wouldn’t do that.” It conflicted with their value of patriotism.

Finding a message that would reach these audiences was not a matter of finding the right facts, or even of finding the right person to explain them (though that helps), but of finding a way to connect with the values motivating the participants’ resistance. So, for example, my clients had to work with the conservatives’ patriotism, by starting communications with an assertion of what America stands for, before launching into the ways our government was violating those values.

The lesson is simple: If you want to persuade the public, or simply a family member who disagrees with you, step one is to let go of the facts.

Emma White is a pollster and message consultant. She can be reached at

  • Emma White

    Hi Eclectablog readers. Chris, thanks for letting me share my thoughts!

  • judyms9

    Thanks for reminding us that pesky facts will almost always be swept aside so the dance floor can be open to True Believers only. We must be in retrograde and rapidly heading into the New and Improved Dark Ages.

    • The_Magic_M

      As a European, I find it puzzling how such beliefs (“Facts be damned, I’ve got opinions!”) are prevalent in a supposedly modern society where any information is available to anyone, yet a significant part of the population acts like they don’t have TV or the Internet and have to rely on what a few people tell them.
      We don’t have these people over here, at least not in significant numbers. It’s almost like looking at a different reality.

      • I, for one, am embarrassed by this *ahem* fact ; )

      • Emma White

        Interesting. What about some of the anti-immigrant hysteria driving recent European elections or the anti-burqua movement in France — is that all fact-driven too? How do you think the people who are very concerned about these topics would respond to evidence suggesting they are wrong? I don’t mean to pick on you here, but I see this as human nature, not limited to one group of people. We easily absorb facts or evidence that fit our view of the world and reject those that do not. For example, liberals in the U.S. are predisposed to view Europe positively, and to go along with assertions that things are better there. :-)

      • Doctor E

        As I understand it, roughly the same percentage of the population (~30%) that are “right wing authoritarians” is in all societies. It is just that in some they are further encouraged in their beliefs by the society itself. Hence, the rise of fascism and the Nazis in Europe during the last century. In fact, it was the question of how countries with what appear to be civilized normal people could become such monsters that led to the research on this personality type.

  • Doctor E

    There is a personality type for whom truth is only what their “authority” tells them. I first read about it in John Dean’s book “Conservatives without Conscience” There is a body of study concerning this so-called “right wing authoritariansm”.

    The main point is facts will ever sway them, even those they can see, touch and feel.

  • Rob Ert

    I’ve just read the article by Emma White. I respect the opinions of an educated person. However, I’ve always been a leftist, and I’ve endured endless conversations with family, friends, and others during which I presented facts vocally only to be confronted by ideology, and even theology. But when the internet search engines appeared I was no longer a “Crack-pot”. My blood pressure has gone down lately, and I feel it is because the internet settles these “disputes” with facts. Please don’t take my comment as criticism, because my circle of friends are not as sophisticated as yours. ( Self-educated) Please continue your path, I envy those who are actually ” in the fight”!

    • Emma White

      Thanks for the comment! I’m glad you have an approach that is working for you.

  • Bill W

    Behavioral economics deals exactly with this conundrum. To quote Chris Turner in The Leap: How to survive and thrive in the Sustainable Economy quoting Robert Cialdani, who said: “Information and exhortation was the same as nothing.”…”Changing people’s knowledge, changing people’s attitudes, changing people’s beliefs are all on the surface of changing their behaviours. So let’s cut to the chase: Let’s change their behaviour.”

    How? By turning the old adage “Think globally, act locally.” on its head. If you “Think locally” – ie, change how people act locally – you can “act globally.” Why? Because people are most influenced by the behavior of others around them. This was used to great effect during the Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012.

  • Marv Sammons

    How can anyone criticize this woman and not be ashamed? Look at the prescription coverage for the plan that everyone says will save her all this money. It is on the BCBS website. Tier 3 is covered 50%. tier 4 and tier5 not at all except by mail order in 30 day supplies.

    Once her pharmacy told her that the new insurance does not cover who do you suppose would walk her through mail order (assuming you see this as reasonable, I don’t) If members service is your answer, I suggest you call them and listen to several hours of Muzak without ever speaking to a human before you cast that stone?

    Ms white, are you informed enough to weigh in on this?

    • The people exploiting Julie Boonstra to promote their political ideology (Republicans, Tim Walberg, the Koch brothers, Americans for Prosperity, etc.) are the ones who should be ashamed, not the people calling “bullshit” on her story. She will save money on her healthcare. Period. What’s so sad is how, as Emma so eloquently puts it, this simple fact won’t change the minds of people like you who are intent on despising the Affordable Care Act.

      • Marv Sammons

        I did not bring up the ACA. I mentioned specific ugly weaknesses in the attack on this woman that are pretty easy to check out. I assume that you failed to invest even this minimal effort in support of the dogma to which you pin the assaults on her else you would have addressed at least one of those points?

        • Nobody on this blog has attacked Julie Boonstra.

          • Marv Sammons

            I admit the criticism here is milder than most and will accept the implication of your comment that you agree she is a victim here and as such ostensibly entitled to complain about hardships brought on her by others. I will overlook the writers point that she is better off and too invested in her hatred for government that she cannot see how it benefits her (like other conservatives)

            You clearly do not want to discuss the fact that her claims of difficulties forced upon her are real and all contradiction of those claims require the she educate herself beyond the level she previously had to through information systems which are currently overloaded and nonfunctional and ultimately would have to jump through hoops in narrow windows of time that no sane person would choose if he/she were informed enough to understand the options.

            I assume that you have now confirmed that my statement regarding her coverage is correct but choose not to admit this?

          • The analysis about her coverage has already been done and is public knowledge. She will save at least $1,000 per year. Period. That is a fact. Her coverage has an annual cap that ensures that.
            As far as the rest of your statement goes, Julie Boonstra isn’t complaining about those things. She’s complaining that her coverage has “become unaffordable” even though she will save money. This other stuff you bring up isn’t part of her supposed problem.
            The idea you seem to have that we never had to work with our insurance companies to get an explanation of their coverage or that policies weren’t discontinued and replaced by new policies regularly by insurance companies before the ACA is ludicrous, btw.

          • Marv Sammons

            Except that not one of those “analysis” included the fact that her drugs must now come mail order and only in 30 day supplies which is non conventional and different than what she claims was her previous coverage.

            Nor did those “analysis” explain that if she failed to purchase her drugs this way they would not be covered and consequently not apply to either her deductible or her out of pocket limits, thereby her costs are limited only by her consumption of the drugs.

            Your points are correct that there were occasional cancellations prior and most insurance consumers have occasionally had to contact insurers to get explanations and or corrections but this is not really the same as what happened in this case is it?

            In this case the law (which I think she was clear about) FORCED the cancellation of her policy. The poor implementation of that law has created chaos which makes it impossible to obtain that routine support from the insurer that you reminded me was always needed.

            My question to you is why do you keep referring me back to the “analysis”? It took me less than a minute to google the plan and confirm that the “Analysis” was glossing over the points I posted. It took perhaps 5 minutes to locate my summary plan document for my own blue cross policy that specifies that only covered expenses apply to deductible and maximums.

            Last I heard the woman was still insisting that the plan is costing her more. Her critics have done the flawed math. She has not.

    • Doctor E

      You should read the BCBS website more closely. For a 30 day supply of tier 3 and 4 drugs, it says are available “retail or mail order”. I don’t see what the big deal is about mail order. I have been doing mail order for my drugs and it is much more convenient to have them delivered than going down to the pharmacy, parking and waiting in line. Really, what is so serious about it?

      • Same here. I buy a three month supply for the cost of two months if I go mail order. Also, Dexter Pharmacy will accept mail order prescriptions. I know this is true because that’s where I get mine.

        • Marv Sammons

          you see that her policy limits her to 30 days and unlike your bonus, she is limited to $200 or $300 of coverage depending on the tier. Are these not variables which figure into affordability?

      • Marv Sammons

        finally someone has actually looked. So you also know that these drugs are limited to a $200 and $300 maximum and ms boonstra has claimed that they cost $2000 per month with a discount card.

        I am happy that you prefer the method of drug purchase that you feel she should be compelled to use. (by the way it says in network retail pharmacy just in case you missed that) I personally have never used mail order for prescriptions and since they are time sensitive and have to be ordered every 30 days don’t consider it viable.

        Bottom line as I pointed out the scenario under which ms boonstra has it financially better is very convoluted and I think most would consider a considerable imposition if manageable at all for even a heathy person.

        • Doctor E

          And just what were the conditions for her previous policy? Without that information, it is hard to say this is so bad. Of course, all this is nonsense anyways since there is a better way of providing health care and most of the developed world has it.

          • Marv Sammons

            fine. What that opinion has to do with a woman complaining that her congressman failed to represent her interests I don’t know but I’m sure you have it figured out

          • She claimed Obamacare was going to kill her because she couldn’t afford her medicine. The rest is Koch brothers/Americans for Prosperity spin.

          • Marv Sammons

            Must have been a different ad because I am sure you wouldn’t misquote. Still don’t understand the jump from this topic to how the rest of civilization has it better. Are you suggesting that the objective is all that matters now?

          • Megan

            Tim Walberg is her congressman, not Gary Peters. Walberg even invited her to be his guest at the State of the Union speech this year specifically to protest Obamacare. (source:

          • Marv Sammons

            true. he voted against the bill she abhors. Peters voted for it and wants to be her Senator

        • She’s only compelled to use them, just like me. If I want to pay more, I can. This changed for me a few years ago, btw. Things ALWAYS change, brother.

          • Marv Sammons

            so your saying you already had no choice in healthcare before the ACA took tens of millions of plans away?

          • Doctor E

            I think Marv and Ms Boonstra are perfect examples of the “right wing authoritarian” phenotype. No facts will ever shake their beliefs. The rest of us waste our time trying. Clearly, we have to direct our attention to the remaining 70% of the population who can see facts and draw conclusions from those facts.

          • Marv Sammons

            Marv does not impose anything on anyone. I believe that free adults should choose for themselves and pay for the choices they make. I also think that sick folks probably don’t need to have complications imposed on them and should they complain about it should not be attacked for those statements on the basis of what others might have them believe.

            Right wing authoritarian? This classification would no doubt surprise most that know me.

          • Doctor E

            Not if those who know you have read the book and know the definition of RWA personality type. :-)

          • Marv Sammons

            you must forgive them. The library is modest at our ashram

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