This election season you may have noticed the sartorial squabble over polling precinct dress codes that started with an Obama t-shirt in Pennsylvania. While the dispute led to a court fight, the campaigns, to be safe, are dissuading voters from wearing clothing that features Obama-Biden and McCain-Palin references. We don’t want to weigh in on the subtleties of election law and what constitutes electioneering. Instead, we want to raise a simpler question: How many people are even going to notice a McCain or Obama t-shirt?
There’s a wonderful study with direct bearing on this current controversy: The “Barry Manilow” experiment (which we mention in Nudge). One version of the experiment worked as follows. When a student arrived to participate, she was asked to put on a t-shirt with a picture of Barry Manilow prominently displayed on the front, and sent to a room where another group of students were busy filling out questionnaires (Barry Manilow was thought to be the least hip, most embarrassing performer a college student could plaster on a shirt – hey, it was the 1990s.) After a minute, the student with the Barry Manilow t-shirt was asked to leave the room with the experiment supervisor. The other students were asked to identify who was on the shirt. How many could? Barely one-fifth. And to show this wasn’t just a Barry Manilow phenomenon, similar results were found with shirts featuring Martin Luther King, Jerry Seinfeld, and Bob Marley.
Skeptics may claim that the experiment featured a picture of Barry Manilow, while most political t-shirts feature candidate names. And being asked to recall a picture and turn it into a name (might be) more difficult than simply noticing the name itself. But it’s also worth questioning how many people will have a chance to see the shirts on other people. After all, lines are the norm at polling locations, which means you spend much more time staring at the backs of shirts, not the fronts of them. What the Barry Manilow experiment cautions is that even when someone turns around, wearing something she thinks is so obvious everyone will see it, lots of people won’t even notice.