Today we have a guest post from Andre Audette of the Department of Political Science at Monmouth College. He can be contacted at aaudette [at] monmouthcollege [dot] edu.
When the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly pushed my classes online, I had to scramble to find ways to incorporate active learning into my online instruction. A unit on ethnocentrism, racism, and religious intolerance in my Religion and Politics course was particularly challenging—a fraught subject even with careful planning for in-person classes, but potentially even more divisive in our current internet culture. I decided to give students a unique “brand challenge.”
Posing it to my students as a replacement for the cancelled March Madness basketball tournament, I took an empty “Sweet 16” bracket and filled it in with classic brand competitions: Coke vs. Pepsi, Apple vs. Microsoft, Netflix vs. Disney+, etc. I asked students to comment in a discussion forum about which of their preferred brands should advance to the next round and why. I accompanied this with a video of myself in a sports hoodie offering brief commentary on each of the “matches.”
After a few days of discussion, the “Elite 8” round got even more interesting with pairings like Ford vs. Kate Middleton, Taco Bell vs. Google Chrome, and Target vs. Netflix. Student comments started centering on which brands were “more American” or have better values or were most familiar and useful to them.
By the time we got to the theoretical discussion of ethnocentrism, we had a personal, real-life example of how the students in my class divide their consumer choices into in-groups and out-groups. A similar attraction or aversion to consumer brands, I argued, applies to our interactions with other social groups. Over time, we learn to divide the world into different groups of people (“Coke people” vs. “Pepsi people”), psychologically attach ourselves to our chosen groups, and defend those groups, even when our rationale for doing so is limited or based on bias or stereotypes.
From my vantage point, this activity served the dual purpose of engaging students while preparing them for the difficult conversations about tolerance to come. We were then able to have meaningful discussions about why some religious groups are not represented in American politics, how perceived religious threat affects peoples’ choices, and how religious “brands” compete in the religious marketplace. I believe that in important part of preparing students to have these conversations is allowing them to experience some of the psychology and emotions that drive our political and social behaviors.
Early empirical studies in American politics were derived from the disciplines of advertising and marketing. The brand challenge activity draws from this tradition and could work well to teach about a variety of social identities and psychological processes. For example, it may help students think about models of partisanship and how individuals interact with party brands. It could also be a useful activity for encouraging students to think about how politics affects our lifestyle choices and the extent to which politics exists in our everyday lives.