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Dominic Mills 

It's time political advertising dared to embrace neuroscience

It's time political advertising dared to embrace neuroscience

The use of neuroscience in commercial advertising is becoming increasingly influential - but its contribution to political advertising could be staggering. So why don't politicians use it?

Politics marketing and the science of product marketing don't have much in common, do they? One is fundamentally manipulative and trivial, while the other is serious, considered and material.

Oh, and one is governed by rules about what you can and can't say, while the other is exempt (I'm talking about the ASA here).

There will be people who hate the parallels, but there are in fact an awful lot of similarities between politics and the way advertising and marketing people talk about the purchase funnel.

I'd say politics is just like advertising, only more extreme.

Indeed, if you look at the activities of the parties in a detached way, their campaigns bear all the hallmarks of a thoroughly modern marketing construct, and use all the channels open to it - celebrity endorsements, print and digital, with social media, video and PR added to the pot.

Think of the parties' campaigns as a multi-layered, multi-dimensional, purchase funnel involving a complex decision-making process and a one-time 'purchase' point on May 7.

Unlike most standard marketing campaigns, each party more or less has a universal target market - everyone in the UK over the age of 18 is a 'buyer', regardless of age, sex, socio-demographic or previous behaviour.

Yet like many brands, they need to keep the regulars loyal (i.e. get the core vote out), regain the affections of those who have dallied with them and their rivals in the past (a huge segment: last week estimated at 40pc); and woo dyed-in-the-wool opponents with complex tactical offers (i.e. vote Green here if you don't want the SNP to control Labour).

At the same time, while many of the purchase triggers are complex issues - Brussels, the difference between debt and deficit, the NHS, English votes for English issues - that require rational explanation, voters still rely on gut feeling (i.e. emotion).

Yes, politics is a weird mixture of the rational and the visceral.

Yet people in advertising know all about that. The rise of the 'emotionalists' like Brainjuicer and those influenced by Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast, and Slow, has been one of the big trends of recent advertising.

And what is the best way to understand those emotional levers? In politics, it has been the focus group.

Yet, as we all know, focus groups are pretty much useless when it comes to really understanding what drives voters or consumers.

People say one thing in a focus group, and another in the voting booth. They post-rationalise an emotional choice that has been driven purely by System One thinking, the part of the brain that is fast, instinctive and takes short-cuts driven by emotion.

The best way to measure this is through neuro-science. Last week, at an event hosted by Grey, the CEO of Neuro-Insight, Heather Andrew, took us through a neuro-analysis of two PPBs, one for Labour featuring Martin Freeman (above) and one featuring David and Sam Cameron (below) talking about family.

Neuro-Insight wired up 109 cross-representative voters and produced some insights - the kind you'd never get from a focus group.

Briefly, they were:

- Martin Freeman's direct-to-camera focus on morality and values made respondents feel more personally involved.

- Labour's £8ph minimum wage promise produced the highest level of personal engagement with both PPBs.

- Labour's positive association with the "economy" was bolstered after the PPB, compared with before, while the Conservatives' was weakened.

- Shots of Cameron on the touchline at his son's football match (about 2 minutes in) were an emotional highlight.

- Sam Cam's brief cameo appearance in a family kitchen table scene (about 2.30 in) triggered positive emotions.

- Cameron's use of "I" and "my" increased the Conservatives' association with "leadership". Ed Miliband's absence from the Martin Freeman film didn't go down well - and decreased Labour's association with "leadership".

- Respondents were turned off by the negative attack lines in the Labour PPB, which decreased Labour's association with "fairness".

- The Conservatives were less strongly linked with the "economy" and "opportunity" after the PPB than before.

- The Conservatives' use of text and captions, rather than voice-over, to highlight pledges, passed viewers by and, as a result, did not stick in the memory.

Bloody hell, you think, this is gold-dust. Voter dislike, for example, of negative campaigning is fascinating.

Yet many of the most, by reputation, effective political ads - Saatchi and Saatchi's Labour Isn't Working, Labour's depiction of William Hague in a Thatcher-style wig with the caption "Be very afraid", or the Conservatives' depiction of Miliband in Alex Salmond's pocket - are apparently negative.

Is there double-double think going on here? People both say, and show emotionally, that they don't like negative political advertising, yet they still respond. Perhaps it's because negative ads only work with the core supporters. Or, actually, they do work if they're brilliant and highlight an unexplored truth.

Robert Heath, a former advertising planner now an Associate Professor at Bath University's School of Management, says negative advertising can transcend tone if it can transfer associations. "For example, the brilliance of the old 'Labour isn't working' ad was that the tone was desperate and the branding (through the headline) was more Labour than Conservative. So the feeling of despair attached to Labour, and because the ad was clever, the feeling of cleverness attached to the Conservatives," he says.

Similarly, in the case of Miliband and Salmon, Heath says, "the feeling is that Milliband is physically lightweight and insubstantial, and Salmond is able to do whatever he likes with him. The ad isn't nasty or unpleasant, it's clever, so again the feeling of cleverness gets attached to the Conservatives."

Yet here's the bigger conundrum. Over the years, political and commercial advertising have come closer together, with more similarities than differences. Focus groups are the norm; PPBs are made with the same disciplines and attention to detail as 60-second commercials; voter segmentation is rife; and party branding is obsessed over.

But the use of neuroscience, increasingly influential in commercial advertising, is non-existent in politics.

Yet it's contribution, to what everyone knows is an emotionally-driven 'purchase funnel' is potentially enormous. So why don't the politicians use it?

Answer: imagine headlines in the Daily Mail or the Sun about brainwashing, lab rats and manipulation.

It will surely come, but not for many elections yet.

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Duncan Smith, Managing Director, Mindlab on 5 May 2015
“It's great that someone else has highlighted this. Mindlab has worked in South America looking at the effect of political communications of different groups of the electorate but not in the UK. We are driven by our emotions and voting is a largely implicit process. We have found on many occasions that the negative style of campaigning can backfire dramatically as the negative associations can be attributed to the party making the accusations. This type of testing will become commonplace. When we have worked in this field in the past, clients have not wanted to make public that they are using neuroscience and psychology to better understand the electorate. You're absolutely right that there is a stigma to the utilisation of neuro techniques in market research. It's not that long ago that 'witches' were drowned.”

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