How Campaign Messages Are Received and Processed

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Consultants spend their careers trying to understand how different kinds of messages are received and processed voters. What determines which messages break through the clutter of communication to be received and considered? What kinds of messages are most likely to cause changes in opinion or belief and motivate people to act? In other words, what works?

Back when I began to learn about writing and producing effective political messages, there were no formal classes or how-to manuals on the effective use of emotion in campaign television spots.

What practitioners knew about it they learned mostly through trial and error. Occasionally—but only occasionally—there were opportunities to conduct the most primitive form of research: individual follow-up conversations with voters who could recall particular radio or television spots and remember their reactions to them. Even then, the spots people remembered, the ones people said got their attention, were those with some level of emotional context. It was not until years later that I learned there were sound scientific explanations for this.

Neurological Research

Drew Westen is neither a political scientist nor a communication researcher. He teaches in the Departments of Psychology, Psychiatry, and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University, and he has conducted and participated in extensive clinical research into the way the human brain receives and processes different kinds of messages.

In the November 2006 Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Westen described research using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to measure brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow. It relies on the fact that when an area of the brain is in use, blood flow to that region increases.
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