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 Randall is Director of Brand Strategy & Research at Movéo Integrated Branding (firstname.lastname@example.org). 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.