It’s not common for mainstream media to analyze ads from a neuromarketing standpoint, but Adam Hanft at Salon does just that for the fascinating “Chinese professor” ad. Sponsored by a group called Citizens Against Government Waste, the ad illustrates one possible result of over-spending by government in an environment where deficits are financed by borrowing from foreign nations. Hanft terms the ad a “cinematic wake-up blast from the future.”

In Five reasons anti-China ads hit so hard, Hanft quotes Drew Westen (see The Neuroscience of Political Marketing), author of The Political Brain:

Electoral success is about shaping and activating voters’ networks of association — bundles of thoughts, feelings, sounds, and images that become linked in the brain. Political campaigns are about activating and shaping networks through stories and images.

The Chinese ad is effective, Hanft suggests, because it builds on existing thoughts and beliefs and reinforces them with its story line. He identifies five beliefs the ad underscores:

1) The Chinese have patience.
2) The Chinese are already winning.
3) We’ve lost something.
4) We’re fascinated by collapsed civilizations.
5) We’re seduced by pop culture set in the future.

These are all excellent points, and, of course, are in some ways factual. The Chinese do have legendary patience in executing long-term plans, while most U.S. politicians can’t see past the next election. And they do seem to be beating the US in economic terms, with a much higher growth rate, increasing dominance in manufacturing, and even a strong position in green technology. The U.S., meanwhile, seems impotent in its efforts to stop rampant intellectual property theft in China and to force market-based currency exchange rates. With this as background, it’s not surprising that this ad resonates with many viewers.

Hard-wired xenophobia and facial similarity effects. One brain-based argument Hanft didn’t include is likely one of the most potent: our brains are wired to trust people who look like us more than those who don’t. No doubt part of this tendency dates back to hunter-gatherer days when recognizing members of your tribe was important, and members of other tribes might be a threat. One interesting piece of research showed that facial similarity was a major factor in trust, implying that “differentiation of kin” is a key factor. (Implicit trustworthiness ratings of self-resembling faces activate brain centers involved in reward by Platek et al.)

Language and Accents. The use of Chinese language and subtitles is realistic and, likely, another neuro-factor in the ad’s potency. Research shows even a foreign accent causes an increase in distrust, as described in Why don’t we believe non-native speakers? The influence of accent on credibility by Shiri Lev-Ari and Boaz Keysar.

Bonus Ad. I know Neuromarketing readers enjoy interesting ads, and here’s another “vision of the future” ad, directed by Ridley Scott in 1986, mentioned Hanft’s article. Here it is:

I don’t recall that ad, probably because the major TV networks refused to air it at the time. Whether it’s the theme of govenment spending or Scott’s production values, this ad feels like it could have been made yesterday.

What do you think of the Chinese professor ad? Is it xenophobic or even racist? Or is it a realistic way to highlight a topic of critical importance in the U.S.?