Maybe Obama’s Middle Name Really Matters


Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama is saddled with an unfortunate middle name, “Hussein.” Not only is it the name of one of the most brutal and belligerent dictators in the last century, it also has connotations that might suggest images of Islamic fanatics to a small subset of voters. When conservative radio talk show host Bill Cunningham used Obama’s middle name repeatedly in a warmup speech for Republican candidate John McCain, he was immediately criticized. McCain ended up apologizing for Cunningham’s remarks. All that was lacking was a statement like, “I will not make an issue of my opponent’s middle name!” Perhaps McCain shouldn’t rush to judgment on this – at least one study has shown that names DO seem to make a difference in behavior and outcomes.

Last November, I reported in Weird News: Names Affect Outcomes:

This seems too odd to be true, but researchers at Yale and UCSD have found statistically significant differences in outcomes for individuals with names that start with different letters. Students whose names start with A or B earn higher grades than those with C or D names. Baseball players whose names start with K strike out slightly more often than the rest of the player population (a strikeout is marked as a ?K?). Is this effect real? And should marketers care?

The researchers analyzed 15 years of data for B-school grads, and found that those with C and D names earned lower grades than those with A, B, or grade-neutral names like M or P. (No word on whether students with names beginning with “I” were more likely to drop out.) Law school data showed a similar effect. Analyzing the records of almost 400,000 lawyers from 170 law schools, they found that students with A and B names were more likely to attend very selective law schools than those with C and D names.

Weird findings indeed, but perhaps the name you are given DOES exercise a subtle effect.

I questioned the potency of this “initial effect” at the time, but one wonders if going through life with a name – first, last, or middle – might have some subliminal effect on behavior? A few centuries ago, someone named “Blacksmith” might well have pursued that profession, but would someone named “Judge” today be more likely to pursue a legal career? Or be wiser and more just in business dealings? Would being named “Hussein” make one slightly more favorably disposed to similarly named individuals? At the conscious level, none of these things would happen. But, presumably nobody likes lower grades, yet individuals with “C” and “D” names were somehow more likely to achieve those grades than students with “A” and “B” names.

It’s a good bet that we won’t have any better answer to this question by November than we do now. Regardless, if the letter/grade research is any indication, any potential effect is likely to be vanishingly small. The initial effects only showed up as inconsequential variations in large sample sizes.

The bigger question for political marketers is whether emphasizing the “Hussein” in Obama’s name is a valid political tactic. McCain has disavowed it, but would that tactic be any different than, for example, using an unflattering photo of one’s opponent in an ad? The blogosphere is all over the map on this question – here’s a sampling:

That’s quite a range of sentiment, and is only the tiniest sampling of what’s out there. It appears that McCain is a statesman for disavowing the use of “Hussein,” a villain for having a surrogate utter the name, or perhaps a closet liberal for not expressing solidarity with Cunningham. Who’s right? My guess is that, as with most things in politics and political marketing, the ethics or acceptability of any given strategy will depend on whether it is favorable or unfavorable to one’s candidate of choice. It won’t surprise me, though, if we haven’t heard the last of Mr. Obama’s middle name.

  1. Jean says

    And what about grades in France? Our grades are figures (from 0 to 20), but we don’t have many students with name starting by figures 🙂

  2. James says

    On a more conventional marketing level check out Obama and design on this post

  3. theMachiavellian says

    Thanks for the mention.

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