The Fey Effect

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With all of the recent controversy surrounding Donald Trump hosting an episode of Saturday Night Live, the power of entertainment has been brought into the limelight as people wondered if late night comedy could shape political views. While many might assume that silly parodies and jokes on Saturday nights couldn’t sway opinions academic scholars have written on what they are calling “The Fey Effect.” Which is named for the 2008 Saturday Night Live parodies of Vice Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin.

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According to the 2012 Communication Quarterly article, “The Influence Of Parodies On Mental Models: Exploring The Tina Fey–Sarah Palin Phenomenon,” The Fey Effect is rooted in viewer’s inability to make “cognitive distinction between legitimate and illegitimate sources,” (Esralew & Young, 339). Simply, when we see impressions, we subconsciously connect them to the original. Then, when the time comes to make judgments of the actual person, we draw from what we already know, the parodies, because it is more efficient (340). By the nature of parodies, comedians take a pre-existing flaw and then exaggerate it. Viewers who have seen the jokes, see the flaw in the original more clearly. The Fey Effect is the inverse relationship of popularity between parodies and politicians, the more popular the parody becomes the less popular the candidate becomes.

It is called The Fey Effect because the results were extreme enough to be noticed in the 2008 Palin parodies. Several factors explain why these SNL sketches created such a great effect, the timeline, the believability and the quality of the impressions created the perfect storm.

The timing is relevant because it shows how Tina Fey was able to prime audiences. August 29, 2008, McCain announced that Sarah Palin would be his running mate in the 2008 Presidential Election. Only two weeks later, Saturday Night Live aired it’s first Sarah Palin impression by Tina Fey. On September 24-25 CBS aired a two-part interview of Governor Palin by Katie Couric. Only two days later SNL aired their parody. Palin wasn’t a household name so American’s had little prior knowledge of what Sarah Palin was like, the parodies followed her out of the gate and for many Fey’s impression of Tina Fey defined Palin.

Second, the impressions Tina Fey did were, to a hyperbolic degree, accurate. Multiple times she nearly quoted Palin in her act which was surrounded by silliness but the core content was essentially the same. The most famous and overt example is in the Katie Couric interviews and parodies.

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Lastly, Fey’s impressions were very well done. Authors from Ithica’s Department of Communications, Flowers and Young, identified similarities from her accent style to her body gestures and her hair and make-up (54-56). Their article, “Parodying Palin” in The Journal of Visual Literacy goes into more depth that the average viewer would consciously notice but all these little details made Fey that much more believable.

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Political scientists Baufartner, Morris, and Walth created series of survives to measure how Fey’s impressions effected 18-24 year olds. Parody views were 15.6% more likely to say that they disapproved of Palin and 45.5% more likely to say that Palin’s nomination made them less likely to vote for McCain (96-100). In short, The Fey Effect is real.

The Fey Effect is real, but the factors that made 2008 such a notable year for parodies were partially supplied by Palin. In the 2016 election the politicians who are at highest risk are unknown, inexperienced, politicians with a body double in the comedy industry. Be aware that everything you see shapes your opinions on politicians so be sure to get your information from valid sources in addition to the parodies we will all enjoy.

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