Thinkscan.com announced the results of a study on political attack ads it recently conducted for CNN. The study, which included 108 panelists, provides concrete evidence that such ads have a significant and measurable impact on voter opinion outside of their awareness.
When voters are asked what they think of attack ads and whether or not these ads affect them, they universally condemn this form of advertising and believe they are unaffected by it. And yet candidates continue to spend millions of dollars on just such ads. The Thinkscan.com CNN study explored the reason for this discrepancy.
According to Thinkscan.com President, Dr. Joel Weinberger, the answer lies in cutting edge psychological science and neuroscience, which shows that people respond to messages on both conscious and unconscious levels. And the two sets of responses are often quite different—sometimes diametrically opposed. Weinberger states that “[p]eople consciously abhor attack ads and do not believe they affect them, but unconsciously these ads may trigger a set of associations in the brain that leave a lasting impression, even though the viewer may be unaware of it.”
For the test, Thinkscan.com ran a study using recent attack ads from the 2008 presidential race – two from Hillary Clinton’s campaign, designed to raise concerns about Barack Obama (her well-known “3AM ad”, and an ad that flashed an image of Osama bin Laden and suggested that Obama was not up for “The Toughest Job in the World”), and one ad from an independent group attacking John McCain’s stance on Iraq. To measure what reactions the ads triggered unconsciously, the study employed Thinkscan’s uniquely sensitive Color Test, which asks respondents to click on the color a word is printed in while deliberately ignoring the content of the word. Research has shown that ignoring the meaning of the word is harder to do when it is already on the person’s mind outside of awareness. Ideas that are active slow the person down by thousands of a second. Thinkscan’s Color Test can measure those milliseconds and thus detect which thoughts or emotions are active unconsciously, simply by measuring this subtle delay.
The test used negative words that represented what each attack ad was trying to accomplish, along with positive words that could be associated with the politician being attacked.
The results were clear: The attack ads worked, even though voters reported disliking them and being unaffected by them. According to Weinberger, “For the 3AM ad, the words Weak, Lightweight, and Muslim slowed voters down, indicating that the negative message regarding Obama had indeed gotten through. For the Toughest Job in the World ad, people unconsciously perceived that Obama was Weak, Muslim, and Incompetent. For the anti-McCain ad, McCain was associated with Bush and Poor Judgment.”