Neuro-Politics: Chinese Professor Ad


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.?

  1. Rich and Co. says

    We would propose that the crux of most political persuasion, especially now, is the demonizing of “the other.” It helps if the “other” has a darker skin shade. Easier to ID.

    There are evolutionary drivers for this at a few levels. Evolutionary drivers are the basis for all brain processes.
    – Fear of outsiders and different peoples was thought to protect from disease in the past.
    – Tribal/in-group bonding is facilitated by clearly identifying “outgroup” members and “enemies.” Visual cues, status differences, regional/religious differences, language, etc are the easiest triggers.
    – Fear triggers are by far the easiest and most reliable drivers of action. If Murdoch and Fox News could make billions selling sweetness and light — they would. “Feeding the fear” just works a whole lot better.

    Our minds also impose dichotomies on the world, it is felt because of the two processing hemispheres, so “us” vs. “them,” “good” vs. “evil” is the way our brains are forced to see the world. Ho hum.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Good point about the “us vs. them,” Rich and Co. Considering how easy it is to create artificial distinctions (see Revealed: How Steve Jobs Turns Customers into Fanatics, imagine how much more powerful it is to build on real distinctions.


  2. adam hanft says

    Yes, I was going to include the fundamental processes that both Roger and the commenter rightly point out. Dan Airely, in his new book “The Upside of Irrationality” talks about experiments regarding facial recognition within and outside of ethnic groups, including an anecdotal experience with his own passport.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Thanks for stopping by, Adam, and the additional insight. I enjoyed reading your article!


  3. Ron Wright says

    Roger – Another couple points regarding why this piece is so engaging.

    First, by using foreign language (“novelty”) this quickly grabs the attention of the viewer in that critical first 800 milliseconds of the spot. And second, by forcing the viewer to read the sub-titles, this increases the viewer’s attention to the message being presented.

    On many dimensions, this is a powerful and memorable political spot. Maybe up there with the famous Johnson Daisy spot from the 1964 campaign. Of course that only ran once. Now due to social media and the internet we can watch this piece many more times. (And so can the folks in China and elsewhere.)

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Good point, Ron – clearly, this ad is hitting on all (neuro) cylinders!


  4. D Garofoli says

    Talking about hard-wired xenophobia and especially the concept of “us vs them”, it might be interesting to take a look to the following paper by James Rilling and colleagues:

    One of the final statements is particularly interesting, if considered under the neuromarketing perspective:

    “On the other hand, subjects reporting that they did not discriminate showed stronger DLPFC activation during out-group interactions, suggesting that they may have been exerting cognitive effort to override discriminatory tendencies.”

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Thanks for the link, DG, very interesting. I think we are able to control some things better than others. I recall Malcolm Gladwell’s interesting discussion of how he was measured reacting in a subliminally negative way to photos of black people, despite his firmly-held beliefs on race.


  5. D Garofoli says

    At the end I wonder if the “inhibitory effect” that DLPFC exerts on the human natural tendency to be xenophobic has sufficient time to act during the spot or not. I mean, it is possible to razionalize while paying attention to the message of the spot (which additionally has a duration of just 1.03)?

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