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The Colbert Bump

A fake pundit's approval turns into real fundraising power The Colbert Report has been a lexically lively show ever since its first episode, when its host, Stephen Colbert, introduced truthiness-that particular version of truth that comes from the bowels, not the brain. Since, he's added Wikiality, a..


A fake pundit's approval turns into real fundraising power

The Colbert Report has been a lexically lively show ever since its first episode, when its host, Stephen Colbert, introduced truthiness-that particular version of truth that comes from the bowels, not the brain. Since, he's added Wikiality, a subspecies of truthiness that he demonstrated by demanding his viewers get on Wikipedia and amend the entry on African elephants to triple the population of the threatened species. "Together, we can create a reality that we can all agree on," Colbert proclaimed, "the reality we just agreed on."Another of the satirical pundit's favorite expressions is the Colbert bump, which he invented to name "the curious phenomenon whereby anyone who appears on this show gets a huge boost in popularity." Colbert attributes rising poll numbers, increased record sales, and even knighthood (in the case of Salmon Rushdie) to his self-named, guest-benefiting, Midas-y touch.Colbert's influence is no longer mere truthiness: University of California-San Diego political scientist James H. Fowler shows, in the journal PS: Political Science and Politics, that there's actually some punch behind the bump. Democratic Congressfolk who appear in the show's "Better Know a District" segment get an actual Colbert bump in when it comes to fundraising.To explore the reality behind the comedy, Fowler analyzed Federal Election Commission data matching Colbert guests to non-Colbert guests. He analyzed candidates on three factors: party affiliation, whether he or she was an incumbent or not, and previous fundraising activity. He also corrected for where in the election cycle a person's appearance took place--some parts of that cycle are more money-soaked than others.Fowler's finding: the bump exists for Democrats. Members of the Donkey party who appeared on the show were doing as well as their colleagues two months before appearing, but their fund-raising sputtered about a month before their guest turn-only to spike dramatically a month after.Why the pre-Colbert poverty? Fowler wonders if Colbert is selecting Democrats on the skids-perhaps to either help them or because they would be easier to mock. Or maybe it's bump-seeking Democrats, who "see an appearance on the show as a way to reenergize their campaigns." Better-positioned Democrats might prefer not to take the risk of appearing in a memorable segment. Take the case of Democrat Robert Wexler, who, in his segment, finished Colbert's sentence "I like prostitutes …" with "because it's a fun thing to do."According to Fowler, it's hard to say anything too strong about the show's effect on Republicans-only eight appeared during the time studied, as opposed to 39 Dems-but they did not seem to receive a Colbert bump. However, Colbert's Republican guests were raking in the dough previous to appearing-Fowler, in the spirit of his subject matter, humorously calls this a "pre-Colbert bump." Putting forth a notion that would no doubt please Colbert himself, Fowler wonders if the Colbert bump is capable of time travel, and therefore even stronger that its namesake imagines. "Maybe the Colbert bump is so powerful that it defies the physical laws of causality," he said. More seriously, Fowler speculates that the only Republicans willing to go on the show are ones doing extremely well in the wallet and at the polls-thus they face less risk in playing the doofus at Colbert's hands.When Fowler sent his article for peer-review, commenters suggested he look at Oprah viewers instead, due to her broader audience. Economists at the University at Maryland beat him to it: Their study found that a so-called Oprah effect may have landed Obama over a million votes that otherwise might have been cast for someone else. Votes and funds are like apples and candy bars, but Colbert should be pleased to know his bump is in the same conversation as Oprah's effect.TV has certainly enriched the language before, but academically relevant terms like Colbert bump and Oprah effect are a new development. (So far, meh, for example, is not an objectively verifiable state of being.) Will future research show that Dexter Morgan, Vic Mackey, Eric Cartman, Wolf Blitzer, and Yosemite Sam have wreaked their own scholarship-worthy word-havoc on the world? As many an academic often notes: further research is needed.(Photo by Martin Cook)
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