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Getting inside voters' minds

Neurologists can show how people respond to candidates' words and images. But it's far from an exact science.

February 10, 2008|Denise Gellene | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Wearing electrode-studded headbands to track their brain waves, two subjects watched the campaign commercial on a monitor in front of them.

Presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, clutching a microphone as she spoke to an approving crowd, promised that people in need would never be "invisible" to her.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, February 12, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Voters' minds: A headline with an article in Sunday's Section A about technologies designed to examine the subconscious of the electorate said that neurologists were involved in the pursuit. It is neuroscientists who are employing the technologies.

When the volunteers heard "invisible," the equipment registered a jolt of electricity in their frontal lobes.

"It got their attention," said Brad D. Feldman, an analyst for EmSense Corp., which conducted the test at its headquarters in a converted warehouse here.

Campaigns have always wanted to looked inside voters' heads. This election season, neuroscience is making that possible.

Arguing that the brain reveals more than spoken answers to questions, a new breed of campaign consultants known as neuromarketers is hawking cutting-edge technologies that they believe can peer into the subconscious of the electorate.

The companies have already used their technologies to test commercials for beverages, video games, software, cellphones and other consumer items. Advertising Age, the marketing bible, has identified neuromarketing as one of the year's top industry trends.

"People are always searching for better ways to test advertising," said veteran Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, who helped run Rep. Richard A. Gephardt's 1988 presidential campaign. "The truth is that it is very difficult sometimes to gauge the effectiveness of political advertising before it goes on the air."

Each of the companies employs different technologies, largely adapted from medical research -- pupil dilation, eye gaze and brain activity using a functional MRI scanner. EmSense's device tracks changes in brain waves, blinking, breathing and body temperature -- reactions that might indicate attention, boredom or emotional arousal. The headband transmits its information to a computer that uses a mathematical formula to determine whether the viewer's subconscious response was positive or negative.None of the companies has landed a job with a presidential candidate, and some experts question whether the technology is any better than the usual political crystal-ball gazing.

But given the high stakes of the campaign, experts say that even a slim possibility of tapping voters' inner thoughts may be too tantalizing to pass up.

"At the end of the day, consumer goods and candidates are both products," said EmSense cofounder Tim Hong.

Manipulating image

The idea that candidates can be promoted like mouthwash -- and that voters can be manipulated like shoppers -- dates back at least to Richard Nixon's successful campaign, detailed in Joe McGinnis' book "The Selling of the President 1968."

In steps that seem elementary now, Nixon's handlers shot separate ads for Southern districts and Northeastern cities, and figured out how to make their candidate appear more relaxed in front of the camera. Since then, research techniques such as focus groups, scripted surveys and data mining have become standard campaign tools.

But the problem with opinion research is that some voters say what they think interviewers want to hear.

Alex Lundry, senior research director with the Virginia-based market research company TargetPoint Consulting Inc., noted that the failure of several key polls to project Clinton's victory over Barack Obama in the New Hampshire primary shows current methods aren't adequately capturing what's on voters' minds.

Neuroscience might help uncover deep-seated attitudes about race and gender that voters might not otherwise reveal -- information that would be especially relevant in the current presidential campaign whose contestants include a woman and an African American, he said.

"It's like a focus group of the mind," Lundry said.

Recent research suggests a role for the subconscious in political decisions. In December, scientists from the University of Washington and Harvard University reported that many people who said they favored Obama in an informal Internet survey preferred Clinton when subconscious reactions were taken into account.

Although some analysts disagree, University of Washington professor Anthony Greenwald said the results seemed to confirm an ongoing "Bradley effect," the phenomenon named after former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, a black Democrat, who narrowly lost the 1982 California governor's race to George Deukmejian, a white Republican, even though polls put Bradley up to 22 points ahead. The theory is that some voters will tell pollsters they intend to vote for a black candidate, then vote for a white candidate.

EmSense was founded by former MIT students who initially wanted to use brain waves to control video games. Instead, they started using their device, which is based on electroencephalography, or EEG, to help game developers modulate emotional responses to twists and turns in the action.

After that, the company turned its attention to testing commercials.

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