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.

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