Don’t those nasty political ads make you mad enough to spit?
You just made a political operative very happy by having just the response the brain scientists said you would. And the politicians are salivating, thinking about the votes they will be getting because they know what buttons to push in your psyche.
Academics call it neuroscience. Business people call it neuromarketing. Politicians call it framing, but it all stems from insights produced by cognitive scientists, linguists and years of political experience.
It’s based on making you vote from your gut, not your brain.
“Basically by framing things in a negative manner you can sort of bypass some of the rational processes and directly impact the emotions,” said Roger Dooley, a marketing consultant and author of Brainfluence.
High on the list of discoveries is that people are reluctant to take on risks, so they are more influenced by the dangers of voting for one person than the positives of voting for another.
The result is an attack ad.
“Just in general, humans are very loss averse,” Dooley said “and to the extent that you can make voters believe that your opponent will be causing them a loss of some kind, whether it’s a financial loss or loss of a freedom or right or something, then that will be a more potent statement than even a positive statement about your own intention. … Just in general, things expressed as a loss are more powerful.”
Appealing to facts goes by the wayside.
“When you are trying to sell somebody a product, whether it’s a politician or a beer or perfume, it often makes sense or it can be a lot more effective to sell on an emotional basis than to try and persuade purely with facts,” Dooley said.
Skip the facts
Cognitive scientists and linguists have made great advances in learning how the brain and emotions work. They have learned that people have biases that are beyond their awareness and they influence almost every decision we make.
Politicians are using those understandings and the testing methods used to gauge them to write more effective commercials and try them out on test consumers before they are made public.
Here are some of their techniques:
EEG: studies of brain waves using sensors attached to the head to determine what parts of the brain are affected when an ad is viewed.
fMRI: Like EEG but using more sophisticated and expensive equipment. Because the person is inside a machine with restricted movement, it is difficult to use this method to get results from television ads. The broader insights by cognitive scientists using fMRI are valuable to advertisers.
Biometrics: Eye scans and galvanic skin tests that gauge a person’s response to the ads.
Focus groups: A gathering of people who are questioned by a skilled researcher to find their responses to an ad or a product.
Linguistics: The careful use of words, knowing the subtle reaction to similar statements. Examples would be “tax relief” instead of “tax breaks” or “partial birth abortion” instead of “terminated pregnancy.”
How we decide
Joe Brewer of Cognitive Policy Works in Seattle said scientists have learned that, “We make moral decisions more like a defense attorney than like a philosopher.”
By that, he meant we draw on our world view, our interests and values rather than taking a sober and critical look at the facts and issues on a rational basis.
Appeals to those values and interests make the most influential political ads, he said.
“The American people are culturally somewhat malleable,” he said. “We go between these different poles depending on a number of inputs.… How’s the economy’s doing? … Do people have everything they need?”
The consequences are that people can be misled or make decisions against their own self-interest.
For example, advertising can make people rack up debt they can never pay off. In politics, they can be bombarded by falsehoods until they believe them.
“The classic one is the spread of lies through misinformation campaigns,” he said. “In 2003-04 when the vast majority of Fox News viewers believed Saddam Hussein was connected to al-Qaeda and that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, those false truths were constructed using neuromarketing by Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and all of those promulgators through the use of neuromarketing to create false impressions in a way where the normal analysis of information doesn’t show that there’s a lie. They may never say something that is untrue but they build up the impression of this falsehood as true over time. When they do that they are using neuromarketing and that is I think a pretty strong ethical violation.”
Making bad guys
Jerry Austin, an Ohio political consultant since 1968 and now an adjunct professor in the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, acknowledged the intent of attack ads usually is to damage an opponent in the eyes of the voter.
“You want to produce some sort of anger or discomfort that will lead a person to run to the ballot box to vote against somebody,” he said.
It’s usually negative, and it’s not always true.
“There’s been out-and-out lies, not little white lies,” he said.
And with changing times comes a lack of accountability.
When he started selling political ads in the 1970s, television stations required politicians to prove dubious claims before they would run. Now, with politicians saying “I approve this message,” the TV stations are off the hook and reaping millions in ad revenue, Austin said.
He said television stations “have a license provided to them by the FCC to use the public air waves … and should be held responsible for what they put on the air. In the old days the TV stations did that. Now it’s more about making money. The amount of money they are making on this election is unimaginable.”
He said there are no consequences of lying, other than an occasional PolitiFact or other article pointing out the falsehood. At one time, he said, the American Association of Political Consultants had a code of ethics.
“When they first started I was involved in it,” he said. “There was a code of ethics that we all signed, but that’s gone by the wayside. There’s no ethics anymore.”
Fundamentally, he said the code insisted: “Whatever you said was the truth. That you wouldn’t be attacking anybody on personal issues like the family members having some sort of problem with drugs or alcohol or marriages. There were, sort of, parts of a person’s life that were off limits. Now, nothing’s off limits.”
He said NFL players who make fouls on the field are punished more than politicians who lie in an attempt to influence votes and public policy.
“If your lies lead to your candidate winning you don’t get punished, you get hired for the next campaign,” he said.
He cautions, though: “I’m not averse to somebody attacking somebody based on their record, but it needs to be the truth as opposed to being made up or inferred or stretching the truth.”
Austin is critical of the young political scientists getting into the field:
“Now you have kids coming out of colleges who specialize in media or understand the computer, any of these things that in my day you couldn’t get a degree in this stuff,” he said. “Many of them are devoid of any moral compass when it comes to even believing in something except the dollar and making money.”
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Scott on Twitter at Davescottofakro.