Week of 11/8: Rising prices

Josh Berezin, Lead Strategist

Summary: None of the messages we tested were effective at changing people’s minds about the root cause of our current inflation issue. Two messages caused backlash, increasing the proportion of people who blame the government. We recommend a high degree of caution around messaging on inflation.

This research was conducted in partnership with Strategic Victory Fund.

Background

Economists believe that recent rising prices are due to a wide range of causes, including increased consumer demand, international supply chain issues, labor shortages, and many other factors. The public, however, largely places blame on the Biden administration.

We aimed to understand the perspectives of people who had a wide range of beliefs about inflation, and to translate that understanding into messages that could shape opinions. 

Future research could include testing more messages or messengers, or how to most effectively pivot from the issue of inflation to other progressive priorities. 

Audience Understanding Survey

On November 8th, we conducted an Audience Understanding Survey, asking 795 people the following question:

Which of the following do you believe is most responsible for recent price increases, even if none of these is exactly right?

  • Global supply chain issues
  • Consumers increasing their spending as COVID restrictions have lifted
  • Companies raising prices to increase their profits and take advantage of higher willingness to pay
  • Federal government policies, including COVID relief payments

We grouped people according to their response to that question, and used their responses to follow up with questions about their values, feelings, and demographics to build up an understanding of each group.

Audience Understanding Survey toplines

Each group of people used a distinct set of words to describe recent price increases.

For example, people who blamed federal government policies described the situation as “stressful,” “horrible,” or “unnecessary,” while people who blamed the global supply chain called it “frustrating,” but “understandable,” and “temporary.” 

Among people who blamed consumers increasing their spending, they said it was “not fair,” “annoying,” and some called this “inflation,” which the other groups tended to avoid. People who blamed companies raising prices in order to increase profits called it “greedy,” “gouging,” and “corrupt.”

Rapid Message Test

We drafted eight messages. Some were directly inspired by relevant values that emerged in the Audience Understanding Survey, as well as the verbatim responses. Others were pulled from language that politicians or other elites have used publicly.

Overall, the messages tended to either assert that the economy was going to get better, or emphasize various root causes for the price increases.

We recruited 1,889 respondents and randomly assigned each to one of the eight messages, or a placebo, after which they were asked the following survey question:

To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement: Rising prices recently are mostly due to the Biden administration’s policies.

Results

No message significantly increased the proportion of voters who disagreed that rising prices are due to Biden administration policies. One message — Signing bonus — caused significant backlash and another — Price gouging — nearly did. Both those messages also caused statistically significant increases in the proportion of voters who agreed with the statement.

No message significantly increased the proportion of respondents who disagreed that rising prices are due to Biden administration policies

These messages were especially ineffective with Democrats. Among people who voted for Biden in 2020, every message caused backlash.

Overall, this finding is consistent with strategists’ assertions that “the party in power owns the economy.” 

Typically, the goal of a test is to come up with a positive recommendation: “Do this!” In this case, we can offer “Don’t do this!” instead. 

That said, we’re open to the idea that effective messages may exist! Feel free to reach out if you or your organization is interested in expanding on this research, hopefully with messages that are more effective than these.

Appendix

Messages

Price gouging

I just got back from the grocery store and I can’t believe the price gouging going on right now! There’s no reason why MILK should be more expensive, it’s not like it’s getting stuck on a shipping container from China. They know people are willing to pay more, so they’re jacking up the prices, and it’s ridiculous.

Greed

During COVID, America’s largest companies raked in outsized profits and record growth, all while being big beneficiaries of government stimulus spending. Yet dozens of them held layoffs, putting Americans out of work and using their profits to increase the wealth of shareholders. The quest for profit never stops, so now they’ve turned to raising prices on seemingly everything. We can’t let their greed continue to make life harder for all of us.  

Signing bonus

Boy, this economy is just weird lately, you know? On the down side, I was going to buy my niece a Squishmallow for Christmas and the stores are already out of stock. On the plus side, I got a new job that came with a signing bonus! I definitely never got a bonus before. I mean, prices for a lot of things are bouncing around lately, too, but I just think all of this is going to get sorted out as the whole world starts to get back to normal. Let’s all hang in there!

Value of hard work

It’s always been really important to me and my wife that our kids get part time jobs when they’re old enough. I want them to learn the value of hard work before they grow up and live on their own. My son turned 16 a few weeks ago and as he looks for his first job, I’ve been shocked at how many service industry gigs are out there paying $15 an hour. He’s going to have a real shot at saving some money for school. The economy’s on its way back—I can see it with my own eyes.

Family restaurant

My big brother runs the family restaurant and has the biggest heart of anyone I know. Both my kids wait tables for him, and he takes such good care of our family and his staff. The needs of his people always come above profit. During the pandemic, government money helped a lot, but he still had to raise prices by a dollar on most things so that no one would lose their job. Recently, he told his customers that we just need to be patient a little longer with price increases while everything settles out.

Supply chain facts

During the worst of COVID, shipping companies cut back on ships, trucks, and staff. Now, as the economy is coming back and people want to buy things again, the ability to move goods around the world hasn’t caught up. So prices for regular things, like clothes, furniture, and even cars, have been increasing. It’s hard on ordinary Americans. That’s why the Biden administration is keeping American ports open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and getting US shipping companies to expand their hours. Once shipping gets back to normal, prices will stop going up so quickly.

Fed executive

Mary Daly, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, says they are monitoring inflation closely.

“The encouraging news is the monthly numbers are coming down, relative to their peak levels,” Daly says, suggesting inflation will eventually cool off, especially if the pandemic fades.

“The inflation numbers you’re seeing are related in my best judgment to the pandemic-related disruption,” Daly says. “They should subside as the pandemic recedes. And if they don’t, we’re prepared to use every policy tool that we have to deliver price stability and full employment.”

Biden

“Many people remain unsettled about the economy, and we all know why,” President Biden said Wednesday. “They see higher prices. They go to the store or go online, they can’t find what they want, when they want it. We’re tracking these issues and figuring out how to tackle them head on.

“The bottom line is this: With the bill we passed last week, and the steps we’re taking to reduce bottlenecks at home and abroad, we’re set to make significant progress,” Biden said. “Not only will we see more record-breaking job growth, we’ll see lower prices, faster deliveries as well.”

Key experiment details
  • Audience: All adults, balanced on age, race, and gender
  • Geography: the United States
  • Sample size (raw / weighted): 1,889 / 1,889
  • Dates in field: Wednesday, November 10, 2021 to Thursday, November 11, 2021
  • Weighting factors: age, race, gender, education, and party