Ads: You may think you’re paying attention, but your body says otherwise

Zheng Wang, Ohio State University assistant professor of communication, demonstrates how she tested people’s physiological responses to campaign ads. Photo by Kevin Fitzsimons.

A few months ago my husband and I decided to give away our only TV—a space-hogging, dust-topped analog set that we hadn’t bothered to convert for digital programming. No, I’m not a hermit. The distraction of television just doesn’t fit into our lives at this moment, and I can’t say that I miss sitting through the latest parade of political commercials.

But as irksome as I find some campaign ads to be, many political scientists and communications researchers are interested in them as perhaps “the only way to force people to be exposed to some kind of different opinion” in a polarized political environment, says Zheng Joyce Wang. (It’s a common claim, for example, that conservative voters flock to Fox News, while liberals favor MSNBC.)

Wang, assistant professor of communication at The Ohio State University, wanted to know how much attention viewers were actually paying to those ads. As a classroom lecturer, for example, she knows that students might seem to stare at her thoughtfully while their minds wander back to last weekend’s party. “It’s important to take a look at what we call the black box—what’s really inside people’s minds.”

To do so, Wang used electrodes to monitor the physiological responses (heart rate, sweating, and facial-muscle movements) of 15 students while they watched a dozen thirty-second advertisements for Barack Obama and John McCain during the 2008 presidential campaign.

According to her findings, recently published in the journal Communication Research, viewers’ attention flagged when the ad featured a candidate they opposed and perked up in response to a favored candidate. Not only that, but those same responses weakened or strengthened over time.

“We don’t realize how biased we are,” Wang says. “Even though we are watching the same ads, we are taking away different things.”

When I talked with her about the study, I was interested in learning how factors like heart rate and muscle movement add up to less or more attention. Wang explains, “If we’re paying more attention, if we’re taking in more information from external stimuli and trying to have a clear perception about something, our heart rate will become slower.” In contrast, a rapid heartbeat suggests you’ve stopped taking in information and are perhaps preparing a counterargument. “You’re in fight-or-flight mode.”

In addition, “When we try to take in information, we try to minimize the noise we make, so we relax the zygomaticus major muscle around the mouth.” The corrugator supercili muscle near the base of the eyebrow may tense in concentration (“It actually blocks some of the sunlight from our eyes so we can see clearer,” Wang explains.) The reverse happens when our attention weakens.

Much of this activity is imperceptible, she explains. “A person could have a ‘stone face’ by our eyes, but [the electrodes] can detect a tightening tendency in the muscle.”

Wang believes the strengths of her study include its numerous data points—360 were collected from each subject—and the coupling of physiological measurements in real time (while the students were watching the ads, instead of just after the fact). “You can’t just look at the heartbeat to say what’s going on. Together [with the other measurements], it tells us a pattern.”

These findings might seem like bad news for political scientists wishing for a more informed populace, or for the politicians who hope to change voters’ minds. One study result might give them some hope, however: Non-partisan subjects responded with equal attention to both candidates’ ads. “This might be the good side of the story,” Wang says. “Those messages can still deliver information for people in the middle.”

While there is much more research to do, Wang says one important implication for political messages is: “It’s not just about the ad. It’s really the dynamic interplay over time between this person and this message,” Wang says. “So we’re always part of the construction of what this message means.”

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