Neuromarketing the 2010 Elections: Scoring Campaign Ads

How, exactly, does neuromarketing work? Darryl Howard, the founder of Attraction Pattern Research and a consultant for two Republican winners in this week’s elections, agreed to share specific examples of his work.

Neuromarketing the 2010 Elections: Scoring Campaign Ads


One of the questions raised by our story yesterday–How Neuromarketers Tapped the Vote Button in Your Brain to Help the GOP Win the House–is how, exactly, neuromarketing works. Darryl Howard, the founder of Attractor Pattern Research and a consultant for two Republican winners in this week’s elections, agreed to share specific examples of his work, which you’ll see below.

But what is neuromarketing? You’ve probably had the experience of watching an ad and unexpectedly getting choked up — or, in the case of campaign ads, feeling the sudden need to take a shower. Neuromarketers measure the way your brain and body responds to these messages, then reverse-engineers the effect into another message.

But even experts and consultants in the field differ about what qualifies as neuromarketing. Some believe that the term only applies to tests done while subjects are wired up to MRI or EEG machines while a scientist studies the resulting brain activity. A more basic type of neuromarketing measures muscle response, skin temperature, and pupil dilation to test the emotional effectiveness of a message (Howard uses this method of testing). Both rely on contemporary research about neuroscience and psychology to determine what people are feeling when they view these messages–versus what they might say they are feeling when asked directly.

Each of the campaign spots shown here has an accompanying number showing the level of emotional response triggered. The scale is from 1 to 1000, but 500 is the critical fulcrum point. “That is the level of the ‘heart,'” says Howard. Anything below 200 is negative–and ad scoring 140 would drive voters away. “Worse yet, they register the ad as false and associate that falseness of the ad with the sponsor,” says Howard, “not necessarily with the one they are aiming at.”

But an ad that scores above 500 still only works on half of the
electorate. An ad in the 365 range is sometimes more effective because
it’s geared to appeal to most of the electorate (“not too hot and not
too cold,” says Howard).

Score Emotion
1-125 Shame, Guilt, Apathy, Grief, Fear
126-199 Anger, Pride
200-299 Courage, Neutrality
300-349 Willingness
350-399 Acceptance
400-499 Reason
500-549 Love
550-599 Joy, Unconditional Love
600 and above Rarely if ever seen in advertising


Three of the campaign ads shown here score of over 500. “They bypass the linear-logic brain and register in the emotion-tied-to-decision-making part of the brain,” says Howard. It’s also known as the “red brain,” a term coined by author and consultant Drew Westen in his book The Political Brain. One example of a mainstream ad that scored above 500 the Olympics ad for P&G titled “To their moms, they’ll always be kids.”

Now on to the campaign ads, and their scores.

1. “This is America” – Allen West (R)

Score: 532


The Pledge of Allegiance and the images of the Constitution make this ad pop, says Howard.

2. “A Generational Choice” – Marc Rubio for Senate (R)

Score: 530

Rubio’s script about being “the son of exiles” and how they struggled to make a better life struck a deep chord with voters. “This is not a lie,” says Howard. “It’s heartfelt.”


3. “Ted Stevens” – Lisa Murkowski for Senate (I)

Score: 525

“Murkowski was concerned about something bigger than herself,” says Howard. “It wasn’t self-serving.”

4. “Shower” – John Hickenlooper for Governor (D)


Score: 365

Hickenlooper says what many people are already feeling about negative campaign ads, that they need to shower after watching one. “What that tells you is that the electorate at 375 did not like ads in the 100 to 200 range,” says Howard. “They could not tell you why; but they needed something to make them feel better, and it was expressed by Hickenlooper in the shower.”

5. “Aqua Buddha” – Jack Conway for Senate (D)


Score: 140

Conway appears to desire being a senator so badly that he will do anything or say anything in order to get elected. “That’s the level of 140: desire,” says Howard.

6. “What is David Price Afraid of” – B.J. Lawson for congress (R)


Score: 85

The last ad has become infamous because of the voice-over by a Morgan Freeman impersonator. The Lawson campaign claims they were “tricked by a political mercenary,” and unknowingly ran the ad thinking it was indeed Freeman’s voice. But the voters were not fooled–they detected the imposter, which is why the ad received such a low score, according to Howard.

This is just one of several approaches to neuromarketing, of course. In the weeks ahead I’ll be exploring other aspects of the field and sharing the findings.

Follow me on Twitter, noahr

About the author

I'm the executive editor of Fast Company and Co.Design.