Political Campaigns’ New Invasive Tool to Win Elections: Scanning Faces, Brains and Bodies of Voters

Monday, November 09, 2015
(graphic: Getty Images)

Neuromarketing, the practice of using facial coding, biofeedback and brain imaging by marketers, is now being used by political campaigns to hone their messages.


In Mexico, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and President Enrique Peña’s campaign used neuropolitical techniques to gauge voters’ brain waves, skin arousal, heart rates and facial expressions during the 2012 presidential campaign. PRI is now experimenting with facial coding to help pick the best candidates. One way the new methods are put to use is by placing cameras in digital billboards and recording and measuring facial reactions to political messages.


Similar techniques have been used in Europe, other parts of Latin America, and even in the United States. Hillary Clinton’s campaign hired a neuromarketing firm to help it improve its targeting and messages.


In Turkey, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and his Justice and Development Party hired a Turkish neuromarketing company before the June 2015 election. It reported to the campaign that Davutoglu was not connecting with voters.


In Poland, Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz and her party, Civic Platform, used a neuromarketing firm ahead of parliamentary elections last month, which they lost, according to The New York Times. In Colombia, President Juan Manuel Santos’s 2014 campaign used the same neuropolitical consultancy advising Mexico’s governing party, and he won. Neuromarketing consultants have also conducted research in Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Russia and Spain.


Some neuroscientists criticize the practice, saying even if researchers find a speech or commercial has spurred activity in part of a person’s brain, a campaign can’t know what that person is thinking. “For the most part, I think that companies selling neuroscience-based market research tools are taking advantage of people’s natural tendency to think that measurements of the brain are somehow more ‘real’ than measurements of behavior,” Russell Poldrack, a psychology professor at Stanford University, told the Times.


Still the use of neuropolitics could increase during the coming U.S. presidential campaign. David Plouffe, President Obama’s former campaign manager, told the Times: “The richness of this data compared to what is gathered today in testing ads or evaluating speeches and debates, which is the trusty old dial test and primitive qualitative methods, is hard to comprehend. It gets more to emotion, intensity and a more complex understanding of how people are reacting.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

Neuropolitics, Where Campaigns Try to Read Your Mind (by Kevin Randall, New York Times)

Has the Age of Neuromarketing Finally Arrived? (by Christian Jarrett, New York Magazine)

Privacy Groups Withdraw from Commerce Dept. Facial Recognition Meetings (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Facial Recognition Software Creeps Closer to Total Accuracy (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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