Once upon a time I spent election campaigns agonising over the choice of images in election leaflets, unsure whether it mattered. Professor Laura Cram of Edinburgh University is currently using the YouGov online opinion panel to investigate the effect that exposure to “subliminal” national imagery has on respondents’ attitudes to the “constitutional status” of Scotland. Respondents are presented with a text introduction to the survey with an image including relevant symbols and text. That the survey is part of an academic research project is not divulged until the questionnaire has been completed. After being shown the image and preamble, the image vanishes and the respondent is then asked to rank on ten point scales their attitudes to independence, increasing financial autonomy for Holyrood, national identity and political identity. The image above of Edinburgh is one of the images used. The colours are subtly saltirely blue and white, it is quintessentially Scottish, the weather looks atypically pleasant, but flying a yellow SNP flag over Waterloo Place is hardly “subliminal” in an image that the viewer has time to examine. The research aims to quantify how much exposure to this and similar images influences attitudes towards the “constitutional status of Scotland”.
Studies elsewhere have found that exposure to subliminal images affects political attitude, for example Hassin et al. in a study of Israeli responses to political symbols found that “subliminal exposure to one’s national flag influences political attitudes, intentions, and decisions, both in laboratory settings and in ‘real-life’ behavior”. Cram’s study may provide interesting insights into how significant exposure to symbols is in shaping attitudes towards the referendum and, importantly, whether any effect is symmetrical: does exposure to United Kingdom symbols strengthen support for the No side as much as exposure to nationalist symbols strengthens support for Yes. Whichever is the case, some junior activists will still be left slumped over their keyboards trying to select the most persuasive image.