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Showing Their True Colors? How EU Flag Display Affects Perceptions of Party Elites’ European Attachment

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Showing Their True Colors? How EU Flag Display Affects Perceptions of Party Elites’ European Attachment

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Evidence suggests that incidental national flag exposure activates nationalistic feelings and that incidental exposure to the EU flag can affect citizen attachments to Europe. However, we know little about what inferences citizens make based on the EU flag when they see it displayed by parties in an electoral context. To test the expectation that this display affects citizens’ evaluations of party elites’ EU attachment, we conducted a large-scale experiment embedded in a Swedish survey in which respondents were exposed to communications from one of the two main Swedish parties, containing or not containing the image of the flag. We find that simple visual display does little to move perceptions. However, if citizens perceive that a particular party displayed the flag, then they are more likely to evaluate its party elites as more attached to Europe.
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American Behavioral Scientist
2016, Vol. 60(14) 1698 –1718
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DOI: 10.1177/0002764216676248
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Article
Showing Their True Colors?
How EU Flag Display Affects
Perceptions of Party Elites’
European Attachment
Delia Dumitrescu1 and Sebastian Adrian Popa2
Abstract
Evidence suggests that incidental national flag exposure activates nationalistic
feelings and that incidental exposure to the EU flag can affect citizen attachments
to Europe. However, we know little about what inferences citizens make based
on the EU flag when they see it displayed by parties in an electoral context. To
test the expectation that this display affects citizens’ evaluations of party elites’ EU
attachment, we conducted a large-scale experiment embedded in a Swedish survey
in which respondents were exposed to communications from one of the two main
Swedish parties, containing or not containing the image of the flag. We find that
simple visual display does little to move perceptions. However, if citizens perceive that
a particular party displayed the flag, then they are more likely to evaluate its party
elites as more attached to Europe.
Keywords
EU flag, EU attachment, party elites, visual display, political perceptions, national
identity
Imagined communities, such as states, need their members to develop a sense of com-
mon identity to firmly establish their legitimacy (Anderson, 1991). Group identity
increases the subjective value of oneself, group members, and the group itself (e.g.,
Hogg, 2006). Thus, national identities help forge positive bonds among citizens and to
the political system, which in turn foster long-term political stability (e.g., Norris,
1999). National identity is often linked to visual symbols such as the national flag.
1University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK
2University of Mannheim, Mannheim, Germany
Corresponding Author:
Delia Dumitrescu, School of Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communication Studies, University of
East Anglia, Norwich Research Park, Norwich, Norfolk NR4 7TJ, UK.
Email: delia.dumitrescu@gmail.com
676248ABSXXX10.1177/0002764216676248American Behavioral ScientistDumitrescu and Popa
research-article2016
Dumitrescu and Popa 1699
Exposure to this symbol activates patriotic and other positive, group-centric feelings
(Butz, Plant, & Doerr, 2007; Kemmelmeier & Winter, 2008; Schatz & Lavine, 2007)
and can influence electoral support (Kalmoe & Gross, 2015).
As dramatically illustrated by the recent “Brexit” vote in the United Kingdom, the
development of a common identity among European Union (EU)1 citizens has been dif-
ficult, given the EU’s temporal recentness and cultural, historical, and linguistic diver-
sity. Such an identity may, however, be a prerequisite for citizens’ acceptance of the EU’s
political power (Carey, 2002). EU elites have therefore attempted to cultivate an
European identity, in part by promoting a set of nonverbal symbols for the community.
Over the past few decades, symbols like the European flag, European map, and
European anthem have become obvious signs of the EU’s physical presence (Manners,
2011). Among them, the EU flag has been the most successful in gaining popular rec-
ognition and support. Ninety-five percent of EU citizens recognize the flag, more than
70% believe it stands for something good, and more than 80% believe it to be a good
symbol of Europe (Standard Eurobarometer 77, 2012). Research has shown that
“adherence to EU symbols such as the flag” forms an integral part of the positive
affective component of European identity (Boomgaarden, Schuck, Elenbaas, & de
Vreese, 2011, p. 247). Europeans are likely to find themselves exposed to the EU flag
(or an image of the flag) in their daily life, as it features on most if not all European
and national official buildings, European-level media communications, car plates
across Europe, and Euro coins and notes.
Previous research has provided diverging evidence as to how citizens react to the
EU flag when observed in public. On the one hand, incidental exposure to the flag in
media coverage enhances feelings of European identity (Bruter, 2009). This result mir-
rors the effects observed for national flags in general (Butz et al., 2007; Kemmelmeier
& Winter, 2008; Schatz & Lavine, 2007). Other studies have found, more specifically,
that the EU flag affects community identity only when associated with some EU-related
benefits, and this effect is relatively small (Cram, Patrikios, & Mitchell, 2011).
For most EU citizens, considerable exposure to the EU flag takes place during
European election campaigns. In these campaigns, many parties from across Europe
choose to display the image of the flag in their informational materials, despite not
being legally bound to do so. Previous research has shown parties that lean pro-Euro-
pean are more likely to display the EU flag than those who do not, and these parties
are more likely to do so if a substantial percentage of the population is favorable
toward the EU (Popa & Dumitrescu, 2015). In election campaigns, the flag is over-
whelmingly used in a positive manner: only 4 out of 921 parties since 1979 have used
it in a negative way (Popa & Dumitrescu, 2015). However, there has been limited
research on the public opinion effects of the EU flag display.
Since the flag is widely recognized as a positive symbol of the European commu-
nity (Manners, 2011), understanding how EU citizens interpret its display by national
parties is important for several reasons. On the one hand, it is clear that political parties
play a central role in shaping public opinion in general (Zaller, 1992) as well as on
European matters (Gabel & Scheve, 2007; Ray, 2003). If national parties display this
community symbol, the association to the EU may help reinforce the legitimacy of the
1700 American Behavioral Scientist 60(14)
EU community among voters. At the same time, if parties want to use the flag to cater
to pro-European voters, then it is important to determine the extent to which this sym-
bol can act as a pro-European signal in a partisan context.
This study therefore explores how citizens interpret the meaning of the EU flag in
an election campaign context. More specifically, we investigate whether displaying
the flag in election materials makes citizens attribute stronger EU attachments to party
elites. To test this proposition, we use a large-scale survey experiment in which
Swedish citizens are exposed to campaign communications featuring the EU flag from
one of the two main Swedish parties, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the
Moderate Party (MP).
Theoretical Background
The EU Flag and Positive Attachment to the European Community
European citizens have different reasons to feel attached to Europe. Bruter (2003, 2009)
distinguishes between attachment derived from shared culture and experience with
other Europeans (the “cultural” side of European identity) and attachment based on
shared political values (the “civic” component of identity). European visual symbols,
including the EU flag, are closely linked to the “cultural” side of European identity.
Boomgaarden et al. (2011) identify two distinct clusters of affective reactions directed
at the European community—a positive dimension (e.g., pride of being European) and
a negative dimension (e.g., fear of the European Union). The European flag is, accord-
ing to their evidence, closely connected to a diffuse, positive affect felt with regard to
the European Union. These results are in line with other research on national flags.
Schatz and Lavine (2007), for instance, also find that the national flag is strongly related
to an affective, symbolic attachment to the nation. Thus, although people may identify
with a community for different reasons, flags, as visual emblems of national identity,
are typically associated with positive emotional attachment to a community.
Empirical evidence consistently suggests that exposure to national symbols acti-
vates positive, nation-centric feelings (Bruter, 2009; Butz et al., 2007; Kalmoe &
Gross, 2015; Kemmelmeier & Winter, 2008; Schatz & Lavine, 2007). Group identi-
ties, in turn, influence perceptions of oneself and members of the group (cf. Hogg,
2006; Stets & Burke, 2000). While previous studies have largely focused on the impact
of exposure to national symbols on personal identity and attitudes, in this article we
are concerned with how exposure to these symbols affects the image of those who
display them. To clarify this point by analogy, imagine that a New Yorker walking
down the street were to display a pink ribbon in 1991. For that individual, the ribbon
would be a symbol of group identity as part of those who fight breast cancer. However,
apart from the select group of New York City runners who used this symbol in 1991,
few people would take it as an identity cue back then. Twenty-five years later, this
symbol has become so ubiquitous that the display of pink ribbons (or wrist bands, or
shoes on athletes) is now a widely recognized indication of support for cancer activ-
ism, in particular breast cancer.
Dumitrescu and Popa 1701
Since the EU flag has been forged as a symbol of the European community
(Manners, 2011) and has been strongly linked to positive affect about the European
Union (Boomgaarden et al., 2011), we examine whether party elites can use its display
to signal their EU attachment to voters (Hypothesis 1: “The direct flag effect”). We
focus on party elites rather than other political actors based on evidence of their influ-
ence on individual political attitudes, including European integration (Ray, 2003;
Steenbergen, Edwards, & de Vries, 2007; Zaller, 1992). At the same time, some empir-
ical research has found that the EU flag’s symbolic power may not yet be potent
enough to always activate feelings of positive identity through simple exposure (see
Cram et al., 2011). One way to increase the flag’s signal strength may be to increase
awareness of its appearance by asking individuals to formulate an opinion about
whether the flag was displayed in campaign communications or not. Thus, we also
investigate whether display of the EU flag sends a credible signal of party elites’ EU
attachment if individuals perceive that the flag was displayed (Hypothesis 2: “The
perception-mediated flag effect”).
The Context of Communication
A memorable image from the 2014 European Election campaign was a UKIP (United
Kingdom Independence Party) poster depicting an EU flag emerging from the still-
burning ashes of a Union Jack (U.K.) flag. This negatively charged display, though
consistent with UKIP’s strong anti-EU position, is also highly unusual (Popa &
Dumitrescu, 2015). In fact, the flag is almost always positively portrayed in parties’
manifestos, and it is positively associated with pro-EU party positions (Popa &
Dumitrescu, 2015). This pattern suggests that such a display is therefore consistent
with a party’s EU attachment.
Moreover, the more ambivalent on EU matters a party is, the more room there
should be for the display of the European flag to affect voter perceptions. Previous
research finds that intraparty dissent generates voter uncertainty about a party’s stance
on European integration (Gabel & Scheve, 2007). Sweden offers a good opportunity
to test the moderating role of party position, as the two main parties have different
levels of intraparty dissent on EU matters. The MP is historically known for favoring
European integration (Sitter, 2001), with a low level of intraparty dissent according to
the latest Chapel Hill Expert Survey (Bakker et al., 2015). Thus, in the case of the MP,
displaying the EU flag should only marginally increase perceptions of MP elite attach-
ment to the European Union, which is already perceived as strong.
The SDP, on the other hand, is generally viewed as having an ambivalent position
toward the European Union due to the fact that the party has been “seriously divided
over Europe even since Sweden decided to apply for EC [European Community]
membership” in the early 1990s (Raunio, 2007, p. 198). This ambivalence is con-
firmed by the latest Chapel Hill Expert Survey study, which placed the SDP close to
the middle on the pro/anti-EU position scale and noted the high level of intraparty
dissent—the highest among the eight Swedish parties represented in parliament
(Bakker et al., 2015). Thus, in the case of the SDP, the positive display of visual sym-
bols of EU identity should act as a cue that moves the balance toward more EU-favorable
1702 American Behavioral Scientist 60(14)
perceptions. In short, the display of the EU flag on party campaign materials should
have a stronger effect on the perception of SDP party elites’ affective attachment to the
EU than for MP elites (Hypothesis 3: “The party effect”).
The Availability of Additional Information
Communication research shows across a variety of contexts that individuals infer sig-
nificant amounts of information from visuals: flag cues can activate political attitudes
and feelings of national identity (e.g., Butz et al., 2007; Kemmelmeier & Winter,
2008); in the realm of facial displays, viewers are able to pick winning candidates
based on facial appearances alone (Hall, Goren, Chaiken, & Todorov, 2009) and, in the
absence of nonverbal facial cues, on their general visual demeanor (Spezio, Loesch,
Gosselin, Mattes, & Alvarez, 2012). When citizens have access to both verbal and
nonverbal political information, a few studies have found that certain voters rely more
on the verbal channel to make decisions (Krauss, Apple, Morency, Wenzel, & Winton,
1981; Nagel, Maurer, & Reinemann, 2012), while others find increased reliance on the
visual channel (Shah et al., 2016; Shah, Hanna, Bucy, Wells, & Quevedo, 2015).
Thus, we also test whether the presence of additional information about the parties’
EU positions moderates the impact of displaying the flag on perceptions of elites’
attachment to the European Union (Hypothesis 4: “The information availability
effect”). Given previous divergent results, we are open about the direction of the effect
here. The null hypothesis is that exposure to policy positions does not affect the signal
strength of displaying the EU flag. But it is also possible that the effect of the flag gets
weaker with the presence of additional information, or that it is enhanced by pro-EU
policy positions and diminished by anti-EU policy positions.
Experimental Design and Measures
The data for this study come from an internet survey experiment conducted by the
Laboratory of Opinion Research at the University of Gothenburg on a panel of Swedish
citizens (N = 1,824). The average age of respondents in the study was about 53 years.
Sixty percent were men, and 77% had completed post–high school education. Technical
details about the panel from which this sample was drawn are available in Martinsson,
Andreasson, Markstedt, and Riedel (2013). The study was dispatched to respondents
several months prior to the campaign for the 2014 European elections, in November
and December 2013.
Design
To test the capacity of the European flag to signal party elites’ European attachments,
we adapted the visual cover of the Swedish MP and SDP’s 2009 European Election
manifestos (Euro-Manifestos) and based all the information provided to respondents
on the parties’ 2009 and 2004 European programs. We pooled policy information from
both years because we could not identify enough quotations in 2009 alone to express
both positive and critical positions about the European Union for both parties.
Dumitrescu and Popa 1703
The experiment took the form of a fully factorial 2 (flag: present vs. absent) × 2 (party:
MP vs. SDP) × 4 (added information: none, EU-positive, EU-critical, EU-balanced) design.
The first factor was whether or not the campaign materials featured a picture of the EU flag.
Specifically, in the flag-present conditions, we added an image of the EU flag to the top left
of each party-specific Euro-Manifesto cover. When present, the flag took only 4% of the
cover so as to not overlap with any of the other originally present elements. This visual
manipulation is illustrated in Figure 1. The second factor was the party sponsor: respondents
saw campaign materials either from the MP or SDP. The third factor was the additional
information accompanying the manifesto covers, consisting of a short text displayed on the
screen. The text factor had four levels: some saw an EU-positive text (highlighting the
European Union’s contribution to solving collective problems); some saw an EU-critical
text (about the European Union’s “democratic deficit”); some saw a balanced text about the
European Union; and, finally, some groups only saw the visual version of the cover with no
text. Participants were randomly assigned to one of the study’s 16 conditions.
Screenshots of the full visual manipulation are presented in Figure 1. The full text
manipulations are in Appendix A.
Perception of the Flag Display
After exposure to the experimental treatment and before the outcomes of interest were
measured, all respondents were asked whether any symbols had been present on the cam-
paign materials they had just seen. They were provided with a list including the EU flag.
The placement of the EU flag on this list was randomized. To avoid repeated (and uncon-
trolled) exposure to the image of the flag, we restricted respondents’ ability to go back and
see the materials again; thus, they had to answer this question based on what they remem-
bered. A total of 88% of the sample answered the question (N = 1,616); of these, 70% (N =
1,126) answered it correctly. More specifically, of the 848 respondents who were exposed
to the flag, 646 (76.1%) reported seeing it. And of the 768 who did not receive the flag
treatment, 481 (62.6%) correctly reported not seeing the flag. As visuals are processed
largely automatically, the question was intended to make individuals think deeper about the
visuals and have them actively express their perceptions about EU flag display.
Dependent Variables
All respondents next evaluated the party’s “top officials” whose campaign materials they
had just seen, as opposed to perceptions of the party overall. Top officials were simply
described as “the party’s leaders and Members of Parliament.” We felt that asking respon-
dents to estimate their feelings toward an entity as abstract and complex as a party would
be cognitively burdensome, and invite measurement error. Moreover, party elites are in
charge of the parties’ policies; thus, their opinions are likely to influence the party direc-
tion. In a very real way, party leaders do personify the parties they represent. To measure
perceptions of party leaders’ European attachment, we adapted a question format from the
ANES 2010-2012 Evaluations of Government and Society Study (Segura, Jackman,
Hutchings, & American National Election Studies, 2012), which was used to measure
group perceptions. Respondents rated how well the expressions “Feel attached to Europe”
1704 American Behavioral Scientist 60(14)
and “Feel proud of being part of the EU” described the [SD/Moderate] Party’s top offi-
cials. These two items were chosen among others used by Boomgaarden et al. (2011) and
by Bruter (2009) and included two affective terms (“feel attached” and “feel proud”) so
Figure 1. Visual manipulation.
Note. The top row presents the original party materials, the middle row presents the party materials
with the added EU flag to the left corner, and the bottom row presents a screen shot example of the full
manipulation. In this example, the text valence is positive (see complete translation in Appendix A).
Dumitrescu and Popa 1705
as to elicit an evaluation of elites’ affective identification with the European Union. Our
main dependent variable is an affective orientation scale constructed from the ”feel
attached” and “feel proud” evaluations given to top officials (α = .90).
Controls
In the early stages of the survey, respondents indicated their level of European identity
(with a measure used by Bruter, 2009), their support for the European Union and atti-
tudes toward EU integration (with items from the European Elections Survey 2004,
and Schmitt et al., 2009), and their party vote intention the 2014 general elections.
Demographic information including age and gender were also asked. These variables
are described in Appendix B.
To facilitate interpretation of the results, all variables in our models were rescaled
to run from 0 to 1.
Results
To test the effect of the flag on perceptions of party elites’ EU attachment, we ran a
series of mediation models (Imai, Keele, Tingley, & Yamamoto, 2011), as depicted in
Figure 2. These models allow us to test both for a direct effect of the flag visual display
(Hypothesis 1) and for an indirect effect through individuals’ perception of the display
(Hypothesis 2). Furthermore, as we expect differences by party (in line with Hypothesis
3), we run these models separately for the SDP and MP. We also expect these effects
to vary with the presence of additional information (in line with Hypothesis 4); there-
fore, we run them separately for each condition.
We start with a simple descriptive table of mean perceptions of elites’ European attach-
ments in each experimental condition, as a function of participants’ perceptions of whether
the EU flag was displayed in the materials they viewed. These simple means, presented in
Table 1, offer an initial indication of the magnitude of effects. Larger values indicate that
elites are perceived to be more strongly attached to the EU. The table suggests at least two
patterns of results: compared with the actual display of the EU flag, the perception that the
flag was displayed is associated with larger variations in the evaluations of elites’ EU
attachment; and these variations are larger for the SDP than for the MP.
To test our four hypotheses, analysis was carried out in MPlus 6.11 (Muthén &
Muthén, 2011) using a series of path models that control for several pretreatment
covariates, such as voting for the SDP, voting for MP, European identity, EU support,
gender, and age (the full results are presented in Appendix C).2 We present the results
separately for the SDP (Table 2) and MP models (Table 3).
The results show no statistically significant direct effects of flag display on evalua-
tions of elites’ EU attachment for either party, irrespective of whether each informa-
tion valence condition is considered separately, or together. Thus, we did not find any
evidence that would corroborate Hypothesis 1, the expectation that simple exposure to
the flag would sends a credible sign of party elites’ EU attachment.
We do however find a statistically significant indirect effect, offering support for
Hypothesis 2, which assumed that the presence of the flag would have to reach awareness
1706 American Behavioral Scientist 60(14)
to serve as a relevant signal. However, the effects are almost exclusively confined to the
SDP conditions. In the case of SDP we find an indirect effect of exposure to the flag visual
across almost all information valence groups. The exception is when respondents were
shown an EU-positive text. The indirect effect of the flag on evaluations of SDP elites’
attachment holds even if we analyze all the information valence groups together.
These results suggest that, for those participants who believed the flag had been
displayed, exposure to this visual symbol of the European Union had a positive effect
on perceptions of SDP elites’ European attachments. At the same time, no such effect
is observed for perceptions of MP elites. There is an indication of a statistically signifi-
cant indirect effect of the flag treatment when we aggregate all groups. But given that
for a relatively large N we only detect significance at p < .10, and the fact that this
Figure 2. The Path Analysis Model.
Table 1. Average Effects of EU Flag Display on Evaluations of Party Elites’ EU Attachment.
EU flag present
Perception of EU flag
display
Evaluation of elites’ EU
attachment
SDP MP
No Not displayed 0.643 0.803
No Displayed 0.701 0.791
No Did not answer 0.589 0.806
Yes Not displayed 0.619 0.763
Yes Displayed 0.696 0.813
Yes Did not answer 0.659 0.786
Note. SDP = Social Democratic Party; MP = Moderate Party. The dependent variable measures
respondents’ evaluations of elites’ EU attachment on a 0 to 1 scale. Larger values indicate stronger
attachment.
1707
Table 2. Path Analysis Results, SDP Group.
Causal effects
Model (N) Outcome (R2) Determinant Direct (SE) Indirect (SE) Total (SE)
SDP, no text
(N = 216)
Perception of flag display
(R2 = .301)
Flag display 1.034*** (0.194) 1.034*** (0.194)
EU attachment (R2 = .150) Flag display −0.017 (0.036) 0.060** (0.022) 0.043 (0.032)
Perception of flag display 0.058*** (0.019) 0.058*** (0.019)
SDP, EU-balanced text
(N = 205)
Perception of flag display
(R2 = .205)
Flag display 0.837*** (0.197) 0.837*** (0.197)
EU attachment (R2 = .188) Flag display −0.023 (0.030) 0.030** (0.015) 0.007 (0.028)
Perception of flag display 0.036* (0.016) 0.036* (0.016)
SDP, EU-critical text
(N = 195)
Perception of flag display
(R2 = .246)
Flag display 1.019*** (0.214) 1.019*** (0.214)
EU attachment (R2 = .139) Flag display −0.026 (0.035) 0.047** (0.022) 0.020 (0.030)
Perception of flag display 0.046** (0.019) 0.046** (0.019)
SDP, EU-positive text
(N = 209)
Perception of flag display
(R2 = .301)
Flag display 1.330*** (0.205) 1.330*** (0.205)
EU attachment (R2 = .150) Flag display −0.020 (0.032) 0.027 (0.022) 0.006 (0.028)
Perception of flag display 0.020 (0.016) 0.020 (0.016)
SDP, all text
conditions (N = 825)
Perception of flag display
(R2 = .236)
Flag display 1.023*** (0.097) 1.023*** (0.097)
EU attachment (R2 = .169) Flag display −0.024 (0.017) 0.041*** (0.010) 0.017 (0.014)
Perception of flag display 0.040*** (0.009) 0.040*** (0.009)
Note. SDP = Social Democratic Party. Unstandardized estimates, standard errors in parentheses.
*p < .10. **p < .05. ***p < .005.
1708
Table 3. Path Analysis Results, MP Group.
Causal effects
Model (N) Outcome (R2) Determinant Direct (SE) Indirect (SE) Total (SE)
MP, no text (N = 189) Perception of flag display (R2 = .334) Flag display 1.216*** (0.261) 1.216*** (0.261)
EU attachment (R2 = .104) Flag display 0.035 (0.032) −0.003
(0.007)
0.031 (0.028)
Perception of
flag display
−0.003 (0.014) −0.003 (0.014)
MP, EU-balanced text (N = 190) Perception of flag display (R2 = .247) Flag display 1.075*** (0.209) 1.075*** (0.209)
EU attachment (R2 = .036) Flag display −0.037 (0.035) 0.013 (0.020) −0.023 (0.029)
Perception of
flag display
0.013 (0.018) 0.013 (0.018)
MP, EU-critical text (N = 210) Perception of flag display (R2 = .212) Flag display 0.928*** (0.195) 0.928*** (0.195)
EU attachment (R2 = .050) Flag display −0.045 (0.035) 0.021 (0.017) −0.023 (0.021)
Perception of
flag display
0.023 (0.017) 0.023 (0.017)
MP, EU-positive text (N = 196) Perception of flag display (R2 = .357) Flag display 1.318*** (0.221) 1.318*** (0.221)
EU attachment (R2 = .134) Flag display –0.015 (0.030) 0.024 (0.018) 0.009 (0.024)
Perception of
flag display
0.018 (0.013) 0.018 (0.013)
MP, all text conditions (N = 785) Perception of flag display (R2 = .261) Flag display 1.090*** (0.103) 1.090*** (0.103)
EU attachment (R2 = .059) Flag display −0.017 (0.017) 0.016*
(0.009)
−0.001 (0.014)
Perception of
flag display
0.015* (0.009) 0.015* (0.009)
Note. MP = Moderate Party. Unstandardized estimates, standard errors in parentheses.
*p < .10. **p < .05. ***p < .005.
Dumitrescu and Popa 1709
effect is much smaller than in the case of SDP, we can safely say that the indirect
impact of the flag on the perceived EU identity of MP elites is at best minimal. Thus,
consistent with Hypothesis 3, we do find some indication that the signal may be more
consequential when the party is ambivalent on EU matters, as is the case with the SDP
but not the MP, which is strongly pro–European Union.
Furthermore, we expected flag effects to vary with the valence of the information
provided, whether the text was critical or supportive (Hypothesis 4). Our analysis
found that the indirect effect of the flag on perceptions of SDP elites is strongest in the
absence of information about the party’s EU positions. This result may also have to do
with the text’s valence. None of the positions in the stimulus materials were overly
critical of the European Union (including the EU critical condition, which was only
mildly negative), and the information valence factor has an independent positive effect
on perceptions of SDP elites (see Appendix C).
Finally, including the flag visual on the party manifesto covers did not significantly
move the viewers’ overall perceptions of party elites’ European attachments (the total
effect of the visual display of the flag does not reach statistical significance). This
could be due to the relatively limited exposure that each participant received to the
stimulus materials, or to the fact that while an indirect effect can be observed, the per-
ception about whether the parties used the EU flag on the cover of their manifestos
does not provide a strong enough rationale on its own for individuals to update their
overall impressions of party elites.
Discussion
The EU flag is a visual embodiment of the European community and exposure to it has
been shown to increase citizens’ affective attachment to Europe (Bruter, 2009). But there
has been limited research on how citizens interpret the meaning of this symbol when they
see it strategically displayed by parties. Previous research shows that parties influence pub-
lic opinion in general (Zaller, 1992)—and attitudes toward the EU in particular (Ray, 2003;
Steenbergen et al., 2007). Given the prominent role that national political elites play in the
construction of a common European identity, it is important to understand the extent to
which voters infer European attachments from the display by parties of the EU flag on their
campaign communications. The aim of this article was to provide a first test of this effect.
Using data from a large N survey experiment in Sweden, we found that displaying
the EU flag can influence voter perceptions of party elites’ EU attachment for parties
with an ambivalent position toward the European Union, such as the Swedish SDP.
However, the display itself does little to move these perceptions; rather, it needs to be
accompanied by the perception that the party actually displayed the EU flag. We also
find that this indirect effect is strongest in the absence of other information, but further
research is needed to establish more precisely how the valence of information affects
evaluations of elites’ EU attachment.
While we find only indirect effects for flag display, these results may be due to the
limited exposure to the flag that respondents received in the study. Due to practical
constraints, we could not make the flag larger than about 4% of the cover image over-
all and we were not able to present repeated exposures to enhance recall accuracy.
1710 American Behavioral Scientist 60(14)
Admittedly, these conditions are quite artificial with respect to real campaigns, where
symbols are featured more prominently and repeatedly. Thus, our study ends up being
a conservative test of the hypothesis. In a real campaign, the effects of EU flag display
on perceptions of party elites should be stronger.
Moreover, the national context in which we tested for flag effects adds to the con-
servative nature of the test. While the level of EU contestation in Sweden has never
reached the highs of other countries that have produced anti-EU parties (such as UKIP
in the United Kingdom), Sweden’s main parties have also been split on the benefits of
this membership since joining the European Union in 1995 (Raunio, 2007). Moreover,
in addition to its national identity, Sweden also has a strong regional identity as part of
the Scandinavian Peninsula. Thus, Sweden may be a tougher than usual case to test for
the signaling power of the EU flag on perceptions of party elites’ European attach-
ment. Results may be stronger in the case of founding members of the European Union
(Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands), for example.
The results also provide some guidelines for practitioners involved in the design of
European campaign promotional materials. They suggest that playing on EU symbols
to signal party leader attachment to the European Union may work but only for parties
that do not have a clear pro- or anti-EU position to begin with. Moreover, what matters
most is whether voters believe the symbol was displayed; thus, to send an effective
signal, campaign managers must ensure that voters pay close attention to the visual
aspect of their electoral message.
Far from settling what inferences citizens make when exposed to the EU flag in a
campaign context, these results point instead to the need for further research. So far,
studies of the impact of European symbols have mainly focused on how exposure to
these symbols in the media influence the public’s sense of European attachment, and
what the flag means to individual citizens as part of a larger political community. This
article suggests that the EU flag display in a political electoral context can signal EU
attachment on behalf of those who display it. Thus, the EU flag display by groups
recognized as opinion leaders, and that individuals identify with, such as national par-
ties, could potentially play an important role in forging a stronger EU attachment.
Future studies should further specify the optimal context for this signal.
Appendix A
Text Manipulations
The texts were directly extracted from the 2004 and 2009 Euro-Manifestos of the two
parties. They were introduced as “Highlights from the Party’s previous European
Election Program/Manifesto.”
I. SDP
a. EU-Positive
i. Swedish
EU är ett fredsprojekt.
EU främjar global fred och säkerhet, för människovärde och demokrati både i Europa
och globalt.
Dumitrescu and Popa 1711
EU underlättar kampen mot arbetslöshet, miljöförstöring, och andra saker som ingen
nation kan lösa på egen hand.
Vi vill fortsätta EUs utvidgning.
ii. English translation
The EU is a peace project.
The EU promotes global peace, safety, dignity and democracy on our continent and
across the world.
EU allows for greater support in the fight against unemployment, environmental deg-
radation, and other things that no nation can solve alone.
We want to continue the EU enlargement.
b. EU-Critical
i. Swedish
EU är inte tillräckligt öppen, demokratisk och jämställt.
Europa bör lägga större värde på människor än på det internationella kapitalet.
EU bör göra mer för att bekämpa ungdomsarbetslösheten och bidra till att skapa
sysselsättning.
EU bör göra mer för att bekämpa skatteflykt och ekonomisk brottslighet.
ii. English translation
The EU is not sufficiently open, democratic, and equal.
Europe should place more value on humans than on international capital.
The EU should do more to fight youth unemployment and help create jobs.
The EU should do more to combat tax evasion and financial crime.
c. EU-Balanced
i. Swedish
EU främjar global fred, säkerhet och demokrati på vår kontinent och i hela världen.
Samtidigt bör EU själv bli mer öppen, mer demokratiskt och mer jämställt.
EU ger större stöd i kampen mot arbetslöshet, miljöförstöring, och andra saker som
ingen nation kan lösa på egen hand.
Men EU måste också göra mer för att bekämpa ungdomsarbetslösheten och bidra till
att skapa sysselsättning.
ii. English translation
The EU promotes global peace, safety and democracy on our continent and across the
world.
At the same time, the EU should itself become more open, more democratic and more
equal.
EU allows for greater support in the fight against unemployment, environmental deg-
radation, and other things that no nation can solve alone.
However, the EU must also do more to fight youth unemployment and help create
jobs.
1712 American Behavioral Scientist 60(14)
II. MD
a. EU-Positive
i. Swedish
EU har säkrat fred, frihet och demokrati i ett Europa som tidigare slets av återkom-
mande konflikter och krig.
Genom EU, Sveriges värderingar om frihet, fred och demokrati har en större inverkan
på världen.
Den ekonomiska krisen och klimatutmaningen visar att många av de frågor som är
viktiga för Sverige endast kan lösas genom ett starkt europeiskt samarbete.
ii. English translation
The EU has secured peace, freedom and democracy in a Europe that was previously
torn by recurrent conflict and war.
Through the EU, Sweden’s values of freedom, peace and democracy have a greater
impact in the world.
The economic crisis and the challenge of climate change shows that many of the issues
that are important for Sweden can only be addressed through strong European
cooperation.
b. EU-Critical
i. Swedish
EU måste bli mer jämställt, med positioner lika delas mellan män och kvinnor.
EU har inte gjort tillräckligt för att säkerställa den fria rörligheten för människor och
företag.
Vi motsätter oss alla försök av EU att reglera vårt arbetskraft och att har sina egna
beskattningsrätt.
EU behöver en bättre strategi för att hjälpa länder att förhindra massarbetslöshet och
tillåta fler och nya jobb.
ii. English translation
The EU needs to become more equal, with positions equally shared between men and
women.
The EU has not done enough to safeguard the free movement for people and
businesses.
We oppose any attempts of the EU to regulate our labor and have their own taxing
powers.
The EU needs a better strategy to help countries prevent mass unemployment and
allow more and new jobs.
c. EU-Balanced
i. Swedish
EU har säkrat fred, frihet och demokrati i ett Europa som tidigare slets av återkom-
mande konflikter och krig.
Samtidigt måste EU bli mer jämställd, med positioner lika delas mellan män och
kvinnor.
Dumitrescu and Popa 1713
Den ekonomiska krisen och klimatutmaningen visar att många av de frågor som är
viktiga för Sverige endast kan lösas genom ett starkt europeiskt samarbete.
Men EU behöver en bättre strategi för att hjälpa länder att förhindra massarbetslöshet
och tillåta fler och nya jobb.
ii. English translation
The EU has secured peace, freedom and democracy in a Europe that was previously
torn by recurrent conflict and war.
At the same time, the EU needs to become more equal, with positions equally shared
between men and women.
The economic crisis and the challenge of climate change shows that many of the issues
that are important for Sweden can only be addressed through strong European
cooperation.
However, the EU needs a better strategy to help countries prevent mass unemployment
and allow more and new jobs.
Appendix B
Study Variables
Elites’ European attachment: Original question wording: “Next we’ll ask how well
some phrases describe [SD/Moderate] Party’s top officials and party voters. Which
group you’ll be asked about first was chosen randomly by the computer.
Think first about [SD/Moderate] Party’s top officials. By “top officials” we mean
the party’s leaders and Members of Parliament. How well does each phrase describe
them? Select one answer from each row in the grid (5 = Extremely well, 1 = Not well
at all).”
“Feel attached to Europe”
“Feel proud of being part of the EU.”
MP voter: Reported vote intention for the Moderates in the 2014 Parliamentary
Elections.
SDP voter: Reported vote intention for the Social Democratic Party in the 2014
Parliamentary Elections.
EU identity: Original question wording: “Do you see yourself as . . . ?” Response cat-
egories: 1. Swedish only, 2. Swedish and European, 3. European and Swedish, 4.
European only.” Recoded into 0 for “1. Swedish only” and 1 otherwise.
EU good: Original question wording: “Generally speaking, do you think that Sweden’s
membership of the EU has been very positive, somewhat positive, neither positive nor
negative, somewhat negative or very negative?” Response categories: 1. Very positive,
2. Somewhat positive, 3. Neither positive nor negative, 4. Somewhat negative, 5. Very
negative.”
Age: Computed from birth year.
Female: Self-reported gender of the respondent, 0: Male, 1: Female.
1714
Table A1. SDP Group.
SDP no text SDP EU balanced SDP EU critical SDP EU positive SDP full
Perception of
flag display EU elite att.
Perception of
flag display EU elite att.
Perception of
flag display EU elite att.
Perception of
flag display EU elite att.
Perception of
flag display EU elite att.
Flag display effects
Direct −0.017 (0.036) −0.023 (0.030) −0.026 (0.035) −0.020 (0.032) −0.024 (0.017)
Indirect 0.060** (0.022) 0.030** (0.015) 0.047** (0.022) 0.027 (0.022) 0.041*** (0.010)
Total 0.043 (0.032) 0.007 (0.028) 0.020 (0.030) 0.006 (0.028) 0.017 (0.014)
Path coefficients
Perception of flag display 0.058*** (0.019) 0.036* (0.016) 0.046** (0.019) 0.020 (0.016) 0.040*** (0.009)
Flag display 1.034*** (0.194) 0.837*** (0.197) 1.019*** (0.214) 1.330*** (0.205) 1.023*** (0.097)
Text effects
Positive text 0.213 (0.139) 0.068** (0.021)
Critical text −0.166 (0.138) 0.084** (0.019)
Balanced text −0.059 (0.137) 0.074** (0.020)
Controls
SDP voter −0.058 (0.328) −0.004 (0.058) 0.146 (0.309) 0.061 (0.053) 0.545 (0.362) 0.030 (0.060 0.084 (0.332) 0.054) (0.068 0.182 (0.156) 0.039 (0.029)
MP voter 0.235 (0.254) 0.025 (0.037) 0.573 (0.308) −0.091 (0.036) 0.085 (0.292) −0.077* (0.042) 0.023 (0.269) −0.029 (0.030) 0.206 (0.139) −0.041* (0.017)
EU citizenship −0.407 (0.282) −0.006 (0.051) 0.081 (0.225) 0.005 (0.033) −0.004 (0.243) 0.014 (0.037) 0.101 (0.303) −0.051 (0.042) −0.045 (0.126) −0.007 (0.020)
EU good 0.209 (0.325) −0.187** (0.058) −0.743* (0.329) −0.129** (0.045) −0.163 (0.328) −0.136** (0.048) −0.453 (0.344) −0.142** (0.046) −0.266* (0.161) −0.149** (0.024)
Female 0.199 (0.209) −0.003 (0.035) −0.035 (0.201) −0.031 (0.028) −0.357* (0.216) 0.025 (0.034) −0.133 (0.222) −0.002 (0.027) −0.075 (0.104) −0.006 (0.015)
Age 0.809 (0.832) −0.359** (0.148) 0.373 (0.709) −0.333** (0.118) 0.241 (0.729) −0.074 (0.103) 0.134 (0.779) −0.164 (0.098) 0.476 (0.366) −0.231** (0.055)
Intercept 0.861** (0.084) 0.948** (0.072) 0.780** (0.066) 0.895** (0.066) 0.812** (0.036)
R2.301 .150 .205 .188 .246 .139 .301 .150 .236 .169
N216 205 195 209 825
Note. SDP = Social Democratic Party; MP = Moderate Party. Unstandardized estimates, standard errors in parenthesis.
*p < .10. **p < .05. ***p < .01.
Appendix C
Full Model Results With Controls
1715
Table A2. MP Group.
MP no text MP EU balanced MP EU critical MP EU positive MP full
Perception of
flag display EU elite att.
Perception of
flag display EU elite att.
Perception of
flag display EU elite att.
Perception of
flag display EU elite att.
Perception of
flag display EU elite att.
Flag display effects
Direct 0.035 (0.032) −0.037 (0.035) −0.045 (0.035) −0.015 (0.030) −0.017 (0.017)
Indirect −0.003 (0.007) 0.013 (0.020) 0.021 (0.017) 0.024 (0.018) 0.016* (0.009)
Total 0.031 (0.028) −0.023 (0.029) −0.023 (0.021) 0.009 (0.024) −0.001 (0.014)
Path coefficients
Perception of flag display −0.003 (0.014) 0.013 (0.018) 0.023 (0.017) 0.018 (0.013) 0.015* (0.009)
Flag display 1.216*** (0.261) 1.075*** (0.209) 0.928*** (0.195) 1.318*** (0.221) 1.090*** (0.103)
Text effects
Positive text −0.257* (0.151) 0.011 (0.021)
Critical text −0.346** (0.144) −0.033* (0.018)
Balanced text −0.451** (0.149) 0.016 (0.020)
Controls
SDP voter 0.947* (0.489) 0.050 (0.046) −0.044 (0.348) −0.033 (0.051) 0.028 (0.275) 0.003 (0.037) −0.044 (0.327) 0.022 (0.033) 0.168 (0.157) 0.000 (0.019)
MP voter 0.701 (0.377) 0.081 (0.055) 0.333 (0.292) 0.039 (0.046) 0.184 (0.275) 0.013 (0.052) 0.688 (0.481) 0.041 (0.048) 0.417** (0.158) 0.039 (0.024)
EU citizenship 0.197 (0.351) 0.022 (0.040) −0.236 (0.286) −0.011 (0.048) −0.431 (0.281) 0.040 (0.042) −0.140 (0.276) 0.017 (0.038) −0.175 (0.137) 0.014 (0.020)
EU good −0.336 (0.499) −0.167** (0.054) 0.420 (0.339) −0.067 (0.043) 0.194 (0.333) −0.129** (0.052) −0.535 (0.364) −0.156** (0.042) 0.040 (0.173) −0.123** (0.023)
Female 0.222 (0.242) 0.058* (0.030) −0.205 (0.208) 0.023 (0.030) −0.251 (0.198) 0.026 (0.033) 0.405 (0.228) −0.068** (0.025) 0.002 (0.104) 0.010 (0.014)
Age 0.861 (0.805) 0.116 (0.121) −0.348 (0.882) 0.019 (0.123) −0.253 (0.670) 0.024 (0.107) 0.134 (0.792) −0.194** (0.090) −0.051 (0.371) −0.019 (0.053)
Intercept 0.761** (0.069) 0.853** (0.077) 0.804** (0.068) 1.003** (0.063) 0.864** (0.034)
R2.334 .104 .247 .036 .212 .050 .357 .134 .261 .059
N189 190 210 196 785
Note. MP = Moderate Party; SDP = Social Democratic Party. Unstandardized estimates, standard errors in parenthesis.
*p < .10. **p < .05. ***p < .01.
1716 American Behavioral Scientist 60(14)
Acknowledgments
The authors would like to thank Erik Bucy, Shanto Iyengar, Daniel Rubenson, two anonymous
referees, and the participants of the 2014 Gothenburg University conference on “Nonverbal
Communication in Politics: Implications for Democratic Judgements and Discourse” for their
comments on earlier versions of this article. We are also extremely grateful to Johan Martinsson,
Karolina Riedel, Elias Markstedt, and Maria Andreasson at the Laboratory of Public Opinion
Research (LORE) at the University of Gothenburg for their assistance with data collection.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article.
Funding
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of
this article.
Notes
1. As of July 2016, the European Union comprises the following member countries (in alphabeti-
cal order): Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia,
Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg,
Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and the
United Kingdom.
2. Running the same model using the R mediation package yielded substantively similar
results.
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Author Biographies
Delia Dumitrescu is lecturer in Media and Cultural Politics at the University of East Anglia.
Prior to joining UEA she held researcher positions at the University of Gothenburg and the
University of Montreal. Her work investigates the content of nonverbal political communication
and its effects on citizens, focusing particularly on party election materials and on candidate
nonverbal behavior. Her recent work has appeared in Political Science Research and Methods,
Party Politics, and French Politics.
Sebastian Adrian Popa is a research fellow of the Mannheim Center for European Social
Research (MZES), University of Mannheim. His research interests cover topics such as: politi-
cal behavior in a comparative perspective, political knowledge, European Parliament elections
and the genetics of political behavior. His work was published in scientific journals such as:
Party Politics, European Union Politics, Electoral Studies, and Politics & Gender.
... We can consider colors as objects of non-conscious perception that can shape our behavior in the same way that others political objects whose effects have been analyzed: national flags (Chan, 2017;Dumitrescu & Popa, 2016), polling place (Rutchick, 2010), or candidates' faces (Laustsen & Petersen, 2016;Olivola & Todorov, 2010). ...
Article
Several studies have shown that exposure to colors affects cognitive and affective processes. In this paper, we tried to find if colors affect the perception of political messages and activate partisan biases. We focus our study on the Spanish cultural environment. In a prestudy ( n = 991), participants identified red as progressive, blue as conservative, and gray as neutral. In two subsequent experiments ( n = 840; n = 938), we analyzed how these three colors influenced the interpretation of political messages and confronted them with issues ownership. The results show that the colors can activate partisan biases but do not have the same strength as issues ownership.
... Ikonikus és társadalmi szimbólumok szintén érzelmi ajánlatokat hordoznak (Lucaites, 1997), a nemzeti zászló szimbóluma például patrióta érzelmeket erősíthet (Schill, 2012). A politikus, aki egyszerűen csak egy olyan szobában látható, ahol a háttérben a nemzeti lobogó található, a nemzeti és a csoportdominancia attitűdöket aktiválja (Kemmelmeier -Winter, 2008), míg az EU-zászló kampányanyagokon való ábrázolása egyértelműen pro-európai érzéseket mutathat minden egyéb ismeret nélkül (Dumitrescu -Popa, 2016). A zászlón túl hasonló érzelemkifejezéshez kapcsolhatók bizonyos nemzetileg fontos helyek, szobrok és események vizuális ábrázolása. ...
... So too are the nascent literatures on non-verbal and visual political communication. There are literatures on the impact of news photos on citizens' interpretations of and attitudes related to current affairs (e.g., Coleman, 2010;Domke et al., 2002;Geise & Baden, 2015;Gibson & Zillmann, 2000;Messaris & Abraham, 2001;Soroka et al., 2016); on the power of symbolic imagery such as flags to activate symbolic attitudes and thereby affect evaluations and vote choice (e.g., Dumitrescu & Popa, 2016;Kalmoe & Gross, 2016); and on the ways in which images -primarily candidate ballot photographs -provide informational shortcuts about political candidates (e.g., Dumitrescu, 2016). 1 Most central for our work is the fact that the power of symbolism and stereotypes in these literatures depends on there being well-established, widely understood associations between partisanship and a range of phenomena that are at best only indirectly political. We see this as a critical overlap between the literatures on (a) the politicization of culture and (b) the role of heuristics in candidate evaluations. ...
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... For example, prolonged exposure to EU symbols intensifies feelings of European identity (Bruter, 2009). Moreover, when one of these symbols, like the EU flag, is displayed on candidates' promotional materials, it signals to voters that the candidate has an affective attachment to the EU (Dumitrescu and Popa, 2016). EPE campaigns also affect citizens' attitudes. ...
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Utilitarian theories propose that support for the EU is based on an instrumental calculus about the costs and benefits of European integration. Drawing on these theories, we analyze whether and how ads produced by European institutions affect public support for the EU. Our findings, based on a panel survey experiment, indicate that these ads increase support for the EU, and that ads emphasizing the policy benefits of European integration are more effective than ads emphasizing its reduced costs. However, these positive effects are short-lived, since they had disappeared one year after citizens were initially exposed to the ads. In a context of increasing negativity towards the EU, these findings, based on realistic treatments, have relevant theoretical and policy implications.
... Popa and Dumitrescu (2017) argue that party manifestos for European elections decreasingly use EU symbols after 1999due to heightened EU politicization. In another study, they argue that EU symbols may be perceived by voters as cues for more pro-European party positions (Dumitrescu and Popa 2016); an aspect that particularly mainstream parties might want to avoid amid heightened politicization as we argued further above. Challenger parties, on the contrary, may increasingly make use of symbols if they were to illustrate their opposition towards the EU. ...
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The American flag is a powerful symbol that campaigns seek to harness for electoral gain. But the flag's benefits may be more elusive than they appear. We begin by presenting content analysis of the flag's prevalence in 2012 U.S. presidential campaign ads, which suggests both candidates saw flags as advantageous. Then, in two experiments set during the 2012 campaign and a later study with prospective 2016 candidates, we find flag exposure provides modest but consistent benefits for Republican candidates among voters high in symbolic patriotism, racial prejudice, and Republican identification. These effects arise regardless of which candidate appears with the flag. Taken together, our results speak to both the power and limitations of the American flag in electioneering. Beyond practical implications for campaigns, these studies emphasize the heterogeneity of citizens’ reactions to visual political symbols and highlight potent links between symbolic attitudes and a nation's flag.
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On the basis of a televised debate in the 2005 German national election, this study compares the influence of verbal, visual, and vocal communication on viewers' immediate impressions of political candidates by using an innovative research design. A second‐by‐second content analysis of 17 verbal, visual, and vocal message elements is combined with a second‐by‐second analysis of viewers' immediate impressions using continuous response measurement (CRM). Findings show that viewers' immediate impressions are mainly influenced by verbal communication, especially the issues discussed and the argumentative structure used. In contrast to that, the effect of nonverbal communication is far smaller. The causes and implications of these findings are discussed.