A neurological study into viewers' subconscious reactions to two political ads reveals interesting learnings for the two main parties says Neuro-Insight CEO Heather Andrew.

As the 2015 election campaign draws to close, many think social media has supplanted the traditional party political advert with more column inches devoted to the #milifandom versus #cameronettes hashtags than to either of the main party's videos. However, our study into the neurological impact of two recently launched party political ads shows they still carry considerable clout. We decided to use brain imaging techniques to explore the subconscious real-time effect of a Labour promo starring Martin Freeman and a Conservative broadcast featuring David Cameron. Participants who viewed the ads also took part in a subconscious association exercise linking words typically featured in election campaigns, such as "leadership" and "economy" to each party's logos. This was carried out before and after the films were viewed.

Bearing in mind that participants weren't asked about their political views, the findings reveal six insights into the impact of political ads on viewers' perceptions of each political "brand."

1. Familiarity matters

Both the ads "got" this point and used it to good effect. "Everyman" Martin Freeman, known for his roles in Sherlock and the Hobbit, was an astute choice to represent Labour. Having him talk directly to camera about values and moral issues, engaged viewers whose brains registered this ad as more likeable and personally relevant than the Conservative film.

Where the Conservative ad scored well was its use of David Cameron who appears at the end of the broadcast cheering on the touchline of his son's football match. Cameron talking about his dreams for his children and all children was regarded as the ad's emotional highlight and drove a strong memory response among viewers. The link between memorised data and decision making means this sort of impact is essential during an election campaign. Cameron's appearance in the ad, together with use of words such as "I" and "my" strengthened viewers' perceptions of the Conservatives and "leadership," which was seen as a stronger Conservative attribute after this film was viewed than before.

2. Party leaders matter

Although Martin Freeman represented Labour effectively, the fact that the ad neither featured nor mentioned Ed Miliband did not play well with viewers. Consequently "leadership" was perceived as a weaker Labour attribute after the Labour ad was viewed than before. Worse still, "leadership" was seen as a stronger Conservative attribute after the Labour ad was viewed than before.

3. Negative campaigning isn't popular but it can be effective

The Labour ad's references to Conservatives making a "rollercoaster of cuts" and having "sod all to offer the young" turned voters off; their brains registered a "dislike" response. While there was a weaker association between Labour and "fairness" following the film– possibly as a result of these messages– the film strengthened "economy" as a Labour attribute, while weakening perceptions of the Conservatives and "economy," suggesting that some of Labour's messaging got through. Meanwhile the Conservative ad, which made no mention of Labour, did not shift perceptions of Labour at all.

4. Pledges are powerful

Viewers' brain responses showed that Martin Freeman's pledge on Labour's behalf to raise the minimum wage to £8 an hour, was personally relevant to them, securing the highest engagement peak of either of the two ads.

5. Political ads can try too hard

The Conservative ad seems to have the best possible intentions: featuring a range of families from diverse ethnic backgrounds and different areas of the UK talking about their hopes for their children, the film is warm, inclusive and doesn't feature any attacks on other parties. All this suggests it should have been better liked than it was. However, with the exception of David Cameron and notably Sam Cam's cameo performance, the ad engaged viewers less effectively than Labour's. By trying to be all things to all people, overall the ad seems to have come across to viewers as rather bland and unmemorable.

The Labour ad was also arguably guilty of trying too hard: When Martin Freeman finishes his final point, an onscreen graphic appears voiced over by another celebrity– David Tennant. Our analysis showed that viewers interpreted the screen change to mean the broadcast was over and they disengaged just before the crucial Vote Labour call to action. It seems as though by trying to cram too much into the last few seconds, the Labour ad ending up confusing viewers rather than capitalising on the ad's strengths.

So who fared best?

The results show that both ads had clear strengths and weaknesses. Miliband's absence from the Labour broadcast seems to have reinforced poor perceptions of his leadership capabilities. Meanwhile although viewers responded well to Cameron in the Conservative ad, overall the tone and approach of the ad felt less personally relevant to viewers than Labour's. The Labour ad arguably squandered this advantage with an ending that failed to drive home the party branding.

In such a tightly fought campaign it will be fascinating to see how issues highlighted in this study play out on Thursday and beyond.

About Neuro-Insight

Neuro-Insight is a market research company that uses unique brain-imaging technology to measure how the brain responds to communications. It is the only company in the world licensed to use this patented technology, enabling the measurement of second by second changes in brain activity. Neuro-Insight delivers unique insights into how a piece of design or advertising is affecting people at both a rational and an emotional level.


The study, conducted by neuro research specialists Neuro-Insight, used brain imaging techniques to explore the neurological impact of election ads by the two main political parties on 109 voters aged 18-65. Participants were not asked about their political beliefs but were selected to be broadly representative of the population as a whole. The research session included a subconscious association exercise where participants were shown words typically featured in election campaigns such as "leadership", "economy", "opportunity" and asked to associate the word with the political party logo– Conservative or Labour– they felt best reflected its attributes. Participants did the association exercise before seeing the election broadcasts and repeated it after viewing the broadcast. Half the sample watched the Labour broadcast and half watched the Conservative broadcast.

The research session itself deployed a technology developed by Neuro-Insight called Steady State Topography (SST) which identifies which parts of the brain are active at a given time by measuring the speed at which signals travel to different parts of the brain. Participants wear headsets fitted with sensors that pick up and measure electrical activity in different parts of the brain. In this study the participants' brain responses were measured while they were shown either the Conservative broadcast or the Labour one.

The results were then analysed by a team of neuro-scientists based in Australia who were able to compare the responses to the association exercises both before and after participants had seen the broadcasts, as well as comparing the responses between viewers of the Labour broadcast and viewers of the Conservative one.