Politics & Government

Uplifting study for North Carolina’s ‘Elevator Lady’

Cherie Berry
Cherie Berry

Anybody who’s ridden in an elevator for the last 10 years has seen her picture: a smiling North Carolina Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry on the inspection certificate.

Now a new academic study concludes that the picture just might have helped her get re-elected in 2012 – and could again next year.

The paper, by UNC-Chapel Hill doctoral student Jacob Smith and former grad student Neil Weinberg, is titled: “The Elevator Effect: Advertising, Priming, and the Rise of Cherie Berry.” My friend Lew Powell brought it to my attention after seeing a blurb in the Boston Globe.

The authors set out to test a theory: Could something like elevator pictures benefit an elected official as much as regular campaign advertising? After all it’s a reach that money might not buy.

Her picture is in each of the state’s nearly 24,600 elevators. Riders trying to avoid conversation or eye contact end up looking at her smiling face. According to the authors, she’s the country’s only official in charge of elevator inspections to post her picture inside them.

The idea came from an aide after she was first elected in 2000.

“He said, ‘Why don’t we put a face with it so they know that person really exists?’ ” Berry recalls. “I said, ‘Why don’t we wait and have one more election cycle and see if I’m just a fluke?’ So we waited.”

It’s sort of taken on a life of its own.

Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry

After she was re-elected in 2004, the pictures went up in 2005. Since then, she says, “It’s sort of taken on a life of its own.”

There have been songs (“You Raise me Up, Let me Down”), viral videos and a parody Twitter account, @ElevatorQueen. Parents tell her their kids refuse to ride in an elevator if it doesn’t have her picture. The fact that people mispronounce her name – it’s Cher-EE, not Cherry – probably helps the recognition. There’s even a fruity dessert named for her called “Cherry Berry in a Cloud.”

“I don’t know that it’s so much (the picture) as a name that they can make rhyme,” she says.

The study, which will be published in the journal American Politics Research, used tools such as spatial regression models to determine whether the elevator pictures actually helped.

(T)here is strong evidence that she would have faced a much closer race in 2012 and might possibly have even lost re-election without the elevator effect.

Study authors

The authors found that in 2008 Berry did better than she had before in big cities, which have the highest concentrations of elevators. They found it even more pronounced four years later.

“(T)here is strong evidence that she would have faced a much closer race in 2012 and might possibly have even lost reelection without the elevator effect,” they write. “Indeed, one might expect this sort of political advertising to gain additional favor with elected officials as the cost of campaigns continues to increase.

“For an incumbent seeking re-election, using a small amount of state funds to spread one’s name is surely more attractive than dipping into one’s campaign war chest to run a (TV ad).”

Berry, who plans to run for a fifth term, says she never planned the self-promotion and was surprised with the study’s conclusion. But she knows the pictures have made the labor commissioner a sort of celebrity.

“A lot of people … think that’s the only thing I do,” she says.