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Consumer Behavior

The Biological Citizen: Neuropolitics as Aim and Danger

Neuropolitics is going global. To what end? At what cost?

Anyone who has seen the futuristic thriller Minority Report (2002), based loosely on a same-titled short story by Philip K. Dick, may recall the scene when Tom Cruise is filmed walking through a gleaming shopping mall. As he saunters past interactive ads that use facial recognition, they call him out by name and ask how he’s enjoying his recent purchases.

Twentieth Century Fox Film
Source: Twentieth Century Fox Film

The advertising is personalized by algorithms that remember exactly what he's bought—technology not so distant or foreign to us today, given the widespread use in e-commerce of cookies that track our every move online.

But how would we react if the same technology were used by political campaigns wanting silently to tailor their message to voters’ facial reactions to their ads, while microtargeting us as potential voters? That might sound like something out of Huxley's Brave New World, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, or The Manchurian Candidate (1962), the Cold War suspense thriller about the imagined brainwashing of a prominent political family. But as the New York Times reported earlier this month, “neuropolitics”—the term adopted to denote furtive behavioral microtargeting by political campaigns—played a significant role in recent elections from Mexico to Poland and Turkey, and comparable neuromarketing, according to the newspaper, is being introduced in countries as far-flung as “Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Russia, Spain and, to a much lesser extent, the United States.”

That last qualifier about the U.S.—“to a much lesser extent”—may soon need updating. Only yesterday, Bloomberg News published a lengthy article about a little known “psy ops” program of data-mining run from the London-based company Cambridge Analytica. The article, “Cruz-Connected Data Miner Aims to Get Inside U.S. Voters’ Heads,” focuses on the behavioral microtargeting of a company now sponsored by the wealthy hedge-funder Robert Mercer, which Ted Cruz’s campaign has hired to align him more successfully with clusters of American voters while quietly adjusting his emphases to make his message more appealing to each of them. The Times also alludes to brief but furtive interest by the Hillary Clinton campaign in neuromarketing, though its campaign manager declined to speak about that on the record and tried to dismiss the question as one of several means by which Clinton is trying to reach voters.

To the extent that all political marketing aims at enhancing that connection, it may seem easy to dismiss such developments as crass but strategic opportunism. After all, what political candidate, spending vast sums on ads and outreach, wouldn't want such a connection? Researchers, too, understandably want to assess the psychology behind voters' decisions and seek ever-more refined ways of interpreting them. But as Times writer Kevin Randall points out, there’s something distinctly ominous and dystopian about political campaigns invisibly tracking visual and auditory responses that, via algorithms, enable a campaign to “tweak the message, … to come up with a version that voters might like better.”

“Today," he adds, “neuropolitical projects are often an international enterprise. A Spanish research firm, Emotion Research Lab, says it is conducting automated facial coding for Mexican candidates at all levels of government. A Polish company, Neurohm, says it has advised American presidential campaigns over several election cycles. A political strategist from Brazil, Paulo Moura, says he has recently applied neuropolitical techniques for senior government officials in Russia. In Mexico, Emotion Research Lab used the cameras embedded in its digital sign to analyze onlookers’ facial reactions so the campaign could rapidly adjust the message.” The geographical distance is often favored because it lessens legal and political accountability.

Meanwhile, companies such as Mediatel Connected in the UK are working hard to end what they call misplaced “stigma” around neuromarketing for political campaigns, arguing, as editorial director Dominic Mills put it earlier this year, that “it’s time political advertising dared to embrace neuroscience” and that “politics is just like advertising, only more extreme.” “The use of neuroscience in commercial advertising is becoming increasingly influential,” he asserts, “but its contribution to political advertising could be staggering. So why don’t politicians use it?”

Apparently they are, and in increasing numbers worldwide. The idea of campaigning on ideas, arguments, and well-honed policy positions—backed by broad-based research and historical experience extending far beyond the immediacy and volatility of voters' reactions—begins to seem increasingly quaint. It won’t be long, perhaps, before we’re hailed individually by interactive campaigns featuring visual replicas of the likes of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz asking us about our recent purchases, what it’ll take to get their vote, and how they might adjust their emphases to help us like them more. Follow me on Twitter @christophlane

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