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How Neuromarketers Tapped the Vote Button in Your Brain to Help the GOP Win the House


There are a multitude of reasons the Republicans regained control of Congress in Tuesday’s elections—unemployment, voter discontent, tea party-ism. But the one influential factor you aren't likely to hear about is the use of political neuromarketing during the campaign.

During the 2008 presidential election, neuromarketers went public with research showing how political ads can drive emotional triggers in our unconscious brains. By reading the responses taken from people linked to fMRI or EEG machines, neuromarketers and their clients aim to optimize stimuli (political messages) and reaction in consumers’ brains and drive their (voting) decisions.

But with public trust in elected officials at an all-time low, politicians today won't talk about anything that even vaguely associates them with Orwellian "mind manipulation." But are they doing it? While most everyone agrees that neuromarketing was used in the 2010 midterm elections, none of the politicians we spoke to admitted to using the techniques in their own campaigns.

Darryl Howard, a consultant to two Republican winners on November 2, says he crafted neuromarketing-based messages for TV, direct mail and speeches for Senate, Congressional and Gubernatorial clients in 2010. "We measure everything including the storyline, level of the language, images, music. Using critical point analysis, we identify specifics that may drive voters away or attract them," he says. The techniques are non-invasive, and include measuring muscle, skin, and pupil response. "We prefer our methods over some EEG/fMRI methods because our approach is quicker and more importantly can be done in the script phase, saving production time and money and tells us the level of honesty of the ad."

Fred Davis is a big believer in neuromarketing as well. He is a luminary in the GOP advertising world whose client list includes George W. Bush and John McCain. Davis, who advised Carly Fiorina's senate bid, says, "We've had a pretty decent success rate in campaigns, and it's all based on that principle of neuromarketing."

Oregon Republican State Senator Brian Boquist also admits to having employed political neuromarketing in his campaigns. "I don’t know how it works, all I know is that it works," says the former Army commander who received a Bronze Star for his service in Iraq. Boquist was also careful to say the technology is part of a broader mix of campaign tactics, and has a way to go before it becomes effective.

Republicans appear to be using neuromarketing more than Democrats, if this midterm is any indication. They are appealing to the emotion of voters' "Red Brain" triggers. "No Democratic candidate I know of has used them [neuromarketing tactics], nor has any major Democratic organization appeared to express any interest in them," says Drew Westen, author of The Political Brain and consultant to major U.S. national Democratic Party candidates.

Then again, 17 of 19 neuromarketing and political consultants contacted for this story stated they did not engage in the practice—including Neurofocus, which bills itself as the world leader in the emerging field and whose Chief Innovation Officer, Steven Genco, did political neuromarketing work previously at Lucid Systems.

"The real risk is that politicians will not want us to know that they are using influencing tools," says Patrick Renvoise, a neuromarketing consultant. "The one with the most knowledge wins and this probably explains why a lot of people are reluctant to talk about neuromarketing, especially with the word politician in the same sentence."

Political neuromarketing appears to be better developed and applied outside the U.S., with South America and Asia serving as testing grounds for consultants. A number of neuromarketing experts confirmed that fMRI techniques were employed by campaigns in Brazil’s 2010 national general election, and that it led to tweaked ads — and ballot box successes in early October.

"I’ve met several neuroscientists who have worked with various politicians in South America on crafting political campaigns and campaign messages," says neuromarketing guru Martin Lindstrom, author of the book Buyology. "Their work has been very hush."

The secrecy may be in part because the field is in its infancy, and many in the academic neuroscience community find the current state of political neuromarketing flimsy at best. "We are in no danger of being brain-washed by super-effective, neuromarketing-based political propaganda!" says Martha Farah, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and Director of the Center for Neuroscience and Society.

But regardless of how well the outcome backs up the practice –- and in the case of Carly Fiorina it clearly did not effect the outcome of the election — there is evidence that the field is gaining popularity. "It has already been used in the last two elections and I believe it will become an even more significant factor in the future," says Renvoise. "This is, for good or bad, an inevitable evolution. It’s easier to trust the response you visualize on a MRI than to trust what people tell you."

"It can be good for all constituents … if done ethically," adds Renvoise. "To the degree that the information is made available to the persuaded, the voters, they could become aware of their own biased perception of what draws them to a particular politician."

[The still frame atop this article is from Newt Gingrich's "The Spirit of Washington" TV spot, which scored an impressive 540 in Darryl Howard's critical point analysis—anything above 500 reaches the level of the "heart," he says. The full video can be viewed below.]


Kevin RandallKevin Randall is Director of Brand Strategy & Research at Movéo Integrated Branding ( Kevin consults on brand matters to Fortune 500 companies and specialized health care and business-to-business organizations. His expertise is understanding, integrating and applying research and brand strategy to create business and customer value. Kevin has been invited to speak on brand topics by Google, Harvard Business School, Wharton and Kellogg, and his articles have been published on six continents. His clients at Movéo include Siemens, CareerBuilder, Cardinal Health, Molex, GOJO/Purell and Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Prior to joining Movéo, Kevin worked for Interbrand where he developed brand strategies for companies such as Abbott, Alcatel, Cricket Communications, Ford, GE, McDonald's, Motorola, Nationwide, Roche, Smucker's and 3M.

Add New Comment


  • Mark Harder

    Good to see someone exposing this. It's the sort of thing I wish Wikileaks would do more of - expose the end-runs around inconvenient democracies around the world.

  • Michelle Cubas

    Why aren't we using these techniques at the airport instead of irradiating people with the scanners? I guess it's not a money-maker that way.

  • Mark Norman

    Ah I see, thanks for the lesson Jym. If 20% of people have low intelligence, that must explain why the conservatives won. When your teams win, it's about reason. When our team wins, it's about manipulation.

    Your reference to "Tea Baggers" is immature and hurts the credibility of whatever argument you're trying to make (high unemployment = hype??)

  • Iam Knott

    A better title for this article would have been:

    How to Dress Up Old Concepts in New Psycho-Babble and Business Buzz Words in Order to Con Clients into Paying Fat Consulting Fees.
    Part 1: Using the Internet to Spread Your BS

  • Jym Allyn

    When you create a new meaning for words such as "socialism" and then use it repeated to invoke images of Ultimate Evil, it becomes easy to be extremely manipulative. Keep in mind that 20% of the electorate still believes that the 1969 moon walks were faked and 20% of the electorate believes that President Obama is a Muslim.
    The actual economic recovery in the last two years and the avoidance of what should have been a 20% unemployment level as occurred in the 1930's, is irrelevant to the hype and perceived economic status.
    Karl Rove has essentially become the "Charles Manson" of American politics.
    It will be "interesting" when the new Tea Bag legislators start "counting the money" in the real economy and factor the costs of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and costs of the Department of Agriculture, as sources of our county's actual economic hemorrhaging.

  • Leonard Kish

    How odd that he enlists an anti-colonial sentiment to persuade his anti-anti-colonialists.

  • Jesse Kurth

    Is there any form of marketing that isn't neuromarketing? Was there ever an advertisement written that wasn't intended to capture attention, convey a message, and persuade the audience?

    This neuromarketing phenomenon is simply measuring the biological impact of an emotionally effective message, then using that information to improve the message. This practice is no different from using sample screenings and focus groups -- test the message, review responses, tweak and repeat. The tools for communication are the same; imagery, language, music, etc. Only the tools for measuring response have evolved.

    Now, what we really need are politicians whose ideas alone will dilate your pupils and relax the tension in your shoulders.

  • Scott Byorum

    "While most everyone agrees that neuromarketing was used in the 2010 midterm elections, none of the politicians we spoke to admitted to using the techniques in their own campaigns."

    "Oregon Republican State Senator Brian Boquist also admits to having employed political neuromarketing in his campaigns."

    Article FAIL.

  • Doru

    Neuromarketing has been used to measure the difference between what people say and what their brain register for a number of years. PR, the actual science of engineering a perception through repetition, association and crafted messaging is more powerful than the actual research of (neuromarketing) and the measurements it reveals. If you want to see it in action go back to 2 years ago when Obama was elected. Take a look at every ad, cover magazine and media message that came out and you will possibly see why he was elected. To imply however that one political party is using it and the other isn't is pretty ridiculous... Further research will reveal that the PR and Ad agencies who helped the Democratic candidates are the best in our country... I don't think years of professional expertise and the science of neuromarketing escaped them.

  • Ellen Moore

    As the CEO of an ad agency, I find neuromarketing an interesting concept. However, watching this youtube video makes me think in this scenario, it's just good communication. A clear message delivered emotionally frequently works. Where is the neuromarketing in that? Did they craft and recraft the script based on the fMRI data? Did they shoot and re-shoot based on a focus group in an fMRI machine? I'd like to know what triggers "work" in neuromarketing. And does it vary by audience? Bottom line for me is that I'm interested to know more about the science of neuromarketing and what it suggests advertisers should do to influence a group of people to act in a particular way. I hope Fast Company will continue to add articles on the subject.

    Ellen Moore, CEO
    Carton Donofrio Partners

  • Doug

    You nailed it. The evil Republicans brainwashed the voters. Had nothing to do with the pathetic situation we are in.

  • Mark Norman

    I'm a little confused by what exactly neuromarketing is. We are talking about measuring the effectiveness of ads with brain scanners instead a person's spoken reaction? And yet in the same article this is mentioned as some kind of hidden scam people shouldn't know about. What specifically is being inserted into these ads that make it an issue?

    Basically what they are doing is using different metrics to gauge and ad...and not putting in subliminal I wrong here?