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Which campaign ads are effective? Neuroscience can tell


What constitutes effective political advertising?

With the 2020 presidential election, this question could shape America’s future. And it’s not easy to answer, although the role of advertising in the 2020 elections is under increasing scrutiny. A record $ 6 billion is expected to be spent on political advertising this year, and a much larger chunk of that money will go to digital platforms – most notably Facebook – which are more easily regulated than television and incredibly granular Provide advertising targeting. But that only adds to the importance of knowing which ads are actually convincing voters.

Until recently, it was hard to know what was working. Digital ad metrics such as impressions, ad time, and click rates provide an incomplete picture. An increase in the polls cannot be assigned to a specific ad. And focus groups are notoriously unreliable.

But what if you could look into the minds of voters instead? Over the past few years I’ve covered a new trend called neuromarketing, which provides a more accurate way of measuring the effectiveness of an ad by using brain-tracking technology to test how people respond to ads. And recently, my colleague Shane Snow and I did a study of Democrats’ primary political ads with a neuromarketing firm called Neuro-Insight to see what really resonated with voters.

This research – along with other neuromarketing studies I’ve reviewed – provides an often conflicting guide to how political candidates can win across platforms in the advertising game. It’s not just how you spend your money that matters. Here’s how to create ads that will literally change the minds of voters.

You need to start with a compelling personal narrative

We tested ads for three leading Democratic candidates – Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders – using Neuro-Insight’s advanced Steady State Topography (SST) technology with a statistically significant sample of registered Democrats. We measured four metrics: engagement, emotional intensity, approach / withdrawal (the positive or negative experience of that emotion), and the coding of long-term memory. Memory coding was the most important metric for a political ad because it correlated with decision making. (Method here.)

A big trend we saw in the ads we tested was the ability to open an ad with a candidate’s personal narration.

For example, this Elizabeth Warren ad begins with Warren telling the story of growing up in Oklahoma, seeing her brothers join the military, getting married at 19, and then getting a second chance with a $ 50 commuter college. All four metrics – and most dramatically the memory coding – come to a head at the happy ending of the story and draw voters in.

This particular study was conducted by placing the ads in a natural setting that was interspersed with the commercial breaks from episodes of Modern Family and NCIS. But further research by Neuro-Insight shows that this is also a formula for success for social media advertising.

In a study of in-feed social video ads, research found that ads with an early story arc were 58% more likely to be viewed after 3 seconds, and that the presence of people in the ad was more emotional Intensity increased by 133%.

On Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, TV and any other advertising distribution channel, candidates must immerse themselves in a compelling personal story from the start.

Show real people experiencing real emotions

Stock Video is the bane of the marketing and advertising world. It is also kryptonite for political advertising.

In the ads we tested, stock footage of people working, driving, etc. broke all four metrics. However, what worked well was showing real people with strong emotions.

This was most notable in the Joe Biden ad we tested, which produced the strongest emotional response. Recordings of Biden’s meetings and hugs from voters evoked strong positive emotions. And in the Warren and Sanders ads we tested, footage of supporters responding emotionally to the candidates generated a high level of engagement.

As humans, we respond to seeing the emotional impact candidates have on other people. That makes sense. Researchers believe we evolved to mimic and adopt the emotions of others, a phenomenon known as emotional contagion. Political ads are crammed with boring archival material; Replacing this with footage from real supporters would likely give a serious boost.

Focus on the problems, but make them human

Many candidates want to focus on the issues. But it can be difficult to do while keeping voters’ attention.

Take the Bernie Sanders ad that we tested. It delves right into Sander’s work on topics such as wage increases, healthcare, and civil rights. But the end result was neither memorable nor appealing to respondents.

We also saw drops in all four metrics for Warren and Biden’s ads as they moved from their personal stories to the issues, though they found some strategies that worked.

Warren’s ad, for example, generated high levels of memory coding and emotional response when talking about second chances and the racial wealth gap. She speaks empathically about these issues, and voters sit in, perhaps spurred on by the personal connection she has made at the top of the ad.

Biden’s ad doesn’t focus on the issues, but ends his “middle class” message on a high note by showing pictures of him that comfort fans. If candidates want their attitudes on the subject to break through, they will likely need to use the power of personal narrative and emotional imagery to make it happen. And with shorter social video formats, it would be wise to focus on just one topic.

Optimize for branding moments

Neuro-Insight has found that one of the most effective advertising strategies is to optimize for “branding moments”. These are moments when the respondents have high levels of memory coding and the candidate (or brand) name or picture is shown on the screen.

The logic here is pretty simple. You want people to remember your face or your name.

Warren’s ad makes this very effective. It has three peak branding moments that were in the top 90th percentile of all the ads tested by Neuro-Insight. It does this strategically. First, it turns the usual boring disclosure (“I’m X and I agree to this message”) that comes at the bottom of the ad into a branding moment at the beginning. The engagement and memory coding skyrocketed when she opened the ad, with the reveal displayed along with her name in large text over a dramatic photo of herself.

Next she hits an important branding moment with her most important catchphrase in large text on the screen: “I have a plan for it.” Finally, she concludes with a powerful picture of her in the spotlight in front of enthusiastic fans – a highlight of the branding moment, which was achieved in the 98th percentile. These branding moments are the number one reason Warren’s ad is expected to have a lasting impact. They’re also reason to be optimistic about Warren’s chances if they can beat expectations in Iowa and New Hampshire, raise money, and invest in big advertising before Super Tuesday.

Our research also reveals a branding moment hack; the image of each candidate in front of a crowd of fans sparked spike branding for both Sanders (65th percentile) and Biden (87th).

Classify Trump as corrupt

Change research has found that messages focusing on President Trump’s corruption are most effective at dampening support for him. Warren’s ad effectively hit the news well. Engagement and memory coding jumped when it showed dodgy footage of Trump and his staff with “corruption” and “we need to root it out” in large text. In many ways, this is another effective branding moment – except this time against Trump.

Ultimately, to win the multiplatform advertising war of 2020, Democratic candidates will have to use every tool at their disposal – possibly the unique insights neuroscience can provide. Because it’s not just about how much money you spend on ads. It’s about how well these ads work.

Joe Lazauskas is VP of Marketing at Contently and co-author of The Storytelling Edge, a book about the science of storytelling and how it can be used to transform your business.


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