The Effect of Language on Political Appeal: Results from a Survey Experiment in Thailand

  • Jacob I. RicksEmail author
Original Paper


Politicians have long engaged in marketing themselves by employing distinct speaking styles to signal social standing, competence, or a shared background with their audience. What effect does this use of different language appeals have on voter opinion? Utilizing a survey experiment in Thailand, I test a set of hypotheses about the effect of language on respondent opinions. Relying on three distinct treatments, a formal language register, an informal language register, and an ethnic language, I demonstrate the multiple effects of language on political appeal. The use of a formal register has mixed effects, signaling both high education as well as preparation for national office while also creating social distance between the speaker and audience. An informal register and the ethnic tongue both signal kinship ties to listeners, with the ethnic tongue having a much more profound effect. The results also show that an ethnic overture has greater electoral appeal than formal speech. These findings highlight the causal effect language has in shaping political opinions and illustrate the varied impacts of linguistic hierarchies on political appeal.


Language politics Ethnicity Political communication Southeast Asia Thailand 



Thanks go to the College of Local Administration and the Social Survey Research Center at Khon Kaen University. Supawatanakorn Wongthanavasu, Peerasit Kamnuansilpa, and Narong Kiettikunwong deserve special mention for their assistance in developing the project. I’m grateful for helpful comments from the participants of SEAREG 2016, a panel at MPSA 2016, and the 2017 Election and Participation in Southeast Asia Conference at National Chengchi University. Those who commented on the paper are too numerous to mention individually, but you each have my gratitude. Thanks also go to the editor and reviewers. This research was conducted with the support of a Singapore Ministry of Education (MOE) Academic Research Fund (AcRF) Tier 1 grant (Project No. C242/MSS15S008). The data and replication code for this paper is housed on the Political Behavior Dataverse page (

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Ethical Approval

This research was conducted according to ethical standards of the Singapore Management University institutional review board. Informed consent was obtained from all respondents. Singapore Management University IRB Approval Number: IRB-15-076-A085 (1015).

Supplementary material

11109_2018_9487_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (466 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 467 kb)


  1. Adida, C. L. (2015). Do African voters favor coethnics? Evidence from a survey experiment in Benin. Journal of Experimental Political Science, 2(1), 1–11.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Albertson, B. L. (2015). Dog-whistle politics: Multivocal communication and religious appeals. Political Behavior, 37, 3–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Alexander, A. (2004). Nasser. London: Haus Publishing Limited.Google Scholar
  4. Alexander, S. T., & McCargo, D. (2014). Diglossia and identity in Northeast Thailand: Linguistic, social, and political hierarchy. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 18(1), 60–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Anderson, B. R. O. (1990). Language and power. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Askew, M. (2008). Performing political identity: The Democrat Party in Southern Thailand. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.Google Scholar
  7. Bailenson, J. N., Iyengar, S., Yee, N., & Collins, N. A. (2008). Facial similarity between voters and candidates causes influence. Public Opinion Quarterly, 72(5), 935–961.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bernstein, B. (1973). Class, codes and control: Applied studies towards a sociology of language (Vol. 2). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  9. Bourdieu, P. (1991). Language and symbolic power (G. Raymond & M. Adamson, Trans.). Malden: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  10. Brubaker, R., Feischmidt, M., Fox, J., & Grancea, L. (2006). Nationalist politics and everyday ethnicity in a Transylvania town. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Carlson, E. (2015). Ethnic voting and accountability in Africa: A choice experiment in Uganda. World Politics, 67(02), 353–385.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Chandra, K. (2007). Why ethnic parties succeed: Patronage and ethnic head counts in India. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Chang, Y., & Lu, J. (2014). Language stereotypes in contemporary Taiwan: Evidence from an experimental study. Journal of East Asian Studies, 14, 211–248.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Chomsky, N. (1979). Language and responsibility: Based on conversations with Mitsou Ronat. New York: Pantheon Books.Google Scholar
  15. Diller, A. (2002). What makes Central Thai a national language? In C. J. Reynolds (Ed.), National identity and its defenders: Thailand today (pp. 71–107). Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.Google Scholar
  16. Diller, A. (2008). Resources for Thai language research. In A. Diller, J. A. Edmondson, & Y. Luo (Eds.), The Tai-Kadai languages (pp. 31–82). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  17. Dunning, T. (2010). The politics of language, race, and class: Experimental evidence from South Africa. Working Paper, Yale University.Google Scholar
  18. Dunning, T., & Nilekani, J. (2013). Ethnic quotas and political mobilization: Caste, parties, and distribution in Indian village councils. American Political Science Review, 107(1), 35–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Ferree, K. E. (2006). Explaining South Africa’s racial census. The Journal of Politics, 68(4), 803–815.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Ganjanakhundee, S. (2016). ‘Lao are lazy’: The problem with ‘Thai superiority.’ The Nation. Retrieved January 30, 2018, from
  21. Geertz, C. (1960). The religion of Java. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  22. Gerring, J. (2007). Is there a (viable) crucial-case method? Comparative Political Studies, 40(3), 231–253.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Gwee L. S. (2016). Do you speak Singlish? The New York Times. Retrieved from
  24. Habyarimana, J., Humphreys, M., Posner, D. N., & Weinstein, J. M. (2009). Coethnicity: Diversity and dilemmas of collective action. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
  25. Hall-Lew, L., Coppock, E., & Starr, R. L. (2010). Indexing political persuasion: Variation in the Iraq vowels. American Speech, 85(1), 91–102.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Harris, A. S., & Findley, M. G. (2014). Is ethnicity identifiable? Lessons from an experiment in Africa. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 58(1), 4–33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Heller, M. (1992). The politics of codeswitching and language choice. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 13(1–2), 123–142.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Hoon, C. H. (2003). “You see me no up”: Is Singlish a problem? Language Problems and Language Planning, 27(1), 45–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Horowitz, J., & Klaus, K. (2018). Can politicians exploit ethnic grievances?? An experimental study of lands appeals in Kenya. Political Behavior. Scholar
  30. Howard, R. (2010). Language, signs, and the performance of power: The discursive struggle over decolonization in the Bolivia of Evo Morales. Latin American Perspectives, 172(3), 176–194.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Joos, M. (1967). The five clocks. New York: Harcourt.Google Scholar
  32. Keane, W. (2003). Public speaking: On Indonesian as the language of the nation. Public Culture, 15(3), 503–530.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Keyes, C. F. (2003). The politics of language in Thailand and Laos. In M. E. Brown & S. Ganguly (Eds.), Fighting words: Language policy and ethnic relations in Asia (pp. 177–210). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  34. Lawson, C., Lenz, G. S., Baker, A., & Myers, M. (2010). Looking like a winner: Candidate appearance and electoral success in new democracies. World Politics, 62(4), 561–593.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Lewis, M. P., Simons, G. F., & Fennig, C. D. (2015). Ethnologue: Languages of the world (Vol. 18). Dallas: SIL International.Google Scholar
  36. Lim, E. T. (2008). The anti-intellectual presidency. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Liu, A. H. (2015). Standardizing diversity: The political economy of language regimes. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.Google Scholar
  38. Liu, A. H., & Ricks, J. I. (2012). Coalitions and language politics: Policy shifts in Southeast Asia. World Politics, 64(03), 476–506.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Madrid, R. L. (2012). The rise of ethnic politics in Latin America. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Marquardt, K. (2017). Identity, social mobility, and ethnic mobilization: Language and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Comparative Political Studies. Scholar
  41. McCargo, D., & Hongladarom, K. (2004). Contesting Isan-ness: Discourses of politics and identity in Northeast Thailand. Asian Ethnicity, 5(2), 219–234.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. McCauley, J. F. (2014). The political mobilization of ethnic and religious identities in Africa. American Political Science Review, 108(4), 801–816.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Nusartlert, A. (2013). The use of address terms in Thai political, legal, media, and academic registers [in Thai]. Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences Khon Kaen University, 30(3), 117–130.Google Scholar
  44. Ostiguy, P., & Roberts, K. M. (2016). Putting Trump in comparative perspective: Populism and the politicization of the sociocultural low. Brown Journal of World Affairs, 23(1), 25–50.Google Scholar
  45. Paterson, L., O’Hanlon, F., Ormston, R., & Reid, S. (2014). Public attitudes to Gaelic and the debate about Scottish autonomy. Regional and Federal Studies, 24(4), 429–450.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Pool, J. (1991). The official language problem. American Political Science Review, 85, 495–514.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Posner, D. N. (2005). Institutions and ethnic politics in Africa. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Premsrirat, S., et al. (2004). Ethnolinguistic maps of Thailand [in Thai]. Bangkok: Mahidol University.Google Scholar
  49. Ranada. P. (2016). 12 elements of a Rodrigo Duterte campaign speech. Rappler. Retrieved from
  50. Redlawsk, D. P., & Lau, R. R. (2006). I like him but…: Vote choice when candidate likeability and closeness on issues clash. In D. P. Redlawsk (Ed.), Feeling politics (pp. 187–208). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Scammell, M. (1999). Political marketing: Lessons for political science. Political Studies, 47(4), 718–739.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Selway, J. S. (2007). Turning Malays into Thai-men: Nationalism, ethnicity and economic inequality in Thailand. South East Asia Research, 15(1), 53–87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Selway, J. S. (2015a). Coalitions of the well-being: How electoral rules and ethnic politics shape health policy in developing countries. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Selway, J. S. (2015b). Ethnicity and democracy. In W. Case (Ed.), Routledge handbook of Southeast Asian democratization (pp. 147–169). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  55. Smalley, W. A. (1994). Linguistic diversity and national unity: Language ecology in Thailand. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  56. Smith-Hefner, N. J. (2009). Language shift, gender, and ideologies of modernity in Central Java, Indonesia. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 19(1), 57–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Streckfuss, D. (2015). An ‘ethnic’ reading of ‘Thai’ history in the twilight of the century-old official ‘Thai’ national model. Southeast Asia Research, 20(3), 305–327.Google Scholar
  58. Todorov, A., Mandisodza, A. N., Goren, A., & Hall, C. C. (2005). Inferences of competence from faces predict electoral outcomes. Science, 308(5728), 1623–1626.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Trudgill, P. (2000). Sociolinguistics: An introduction to language and society (4th ed.). London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  60. White, I. K. (2007). When race matters and when it doesn’t: Racial group differences in response to racial cues. American Political Science Review, 101(2), 339–354.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Wimmer, A. (2013). Ethnic boundary making. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Social SciencesSingapore Management UniversitySingaporeSingapore

Personalised recommendations