Using Emotion in Brand Communication: Lessons Learned from Political TV Programming

To say that the political environment in the United States is emotionally charged is an understatement. The intense emotions associated with politics are on full display on a nightly basis through a range of politically partisan cable television programs.

The emotional nature of political media content not only has implications for democracy — in terms of the potential effects of such content on individuals — but also for news organizations and their advertisers by significantly moderating the effectiveness of advertising on politically partisan programs.  

With these thoughts in mind, a group of University of Missouri students and I decided to conduct an experiment using biometric measures to gain insight into the emotional experience of viewing politically partisan programs.

This experiment involved having participants complete a measure of their own political ideology and then randomly assign them to view either an ideologically liberal or conservative program. This experimental design allowed us to observe the general emotional experience of viewing political media content and test the effect of whether or not that content is consistent or inconsistent with one’s own political ideology.

We showed participants program segments with blocks of advertising edited on to the end of each segment — simulating the sequence of viewing program segments and then exposing them to ads. Biometric measures of attention (heart rate) and arousal (skin conductance) were recorded while participants viewed the segments and advertisements.  We expected that viewers would pay more attention to programs that were consistent with their own ideology. We also predicted that viewers would exhibit a much more intense emotional experience when viewing programs that are inconsistent with their ideology. The charts below illustrate that the results are in line with our expected outcomes.

A stronger pattern of heart rate deceleration during exposure to media content indicates higher levels of attention and this was observed during exposure to ideologically consistent programs.

Skin conductance indexes variations in sympathetic nervous system activity and serves as a biometric measure of arousal — the intensity of the emotional experience. Increases in skin conductance level during exposure to media content indicates an increase in the intensity of the emotional experience and, as predicted, this was observed during exposure to ideologically inconsistent programs.

Beyond the fact that this is an expected pattern of results, there are some interesting insights to be gleaned for brands seeking to use biometric measures in message testing. The interpretation of biometric data in brand communication research must be completely grounded in a thorough understanding of how the minds of targeted individuals interact with specific messages. In this case, the messages consisted of political content that participants were likely to either agree or disagree with. With this fact in mind, the points at which heart rate and skin conductance levels increase during program exposure can be interpreted as points in the program where viewers had an intense emotional experience that led them to actually withdraw their attention from the program . This is likely due to a message they disagree with.

The results of this study augment previous research validating heart rate acceleration in combination with increased skin conductance levels as a biometric response pattern indicative of withdrawing attention from media content that has become too emotionally intense.

This is an extremely important finding for brand message testing in that  it is not only important to use biometric measures to indicate what parts of the message are increasing attention and the desired emotional response but also parts of the message that might decrease attention and evoke an emotional experience that is not conducive to effective communication.

Armed with specific biometric response patterns that reliably indicate distinct psychological processes unfolding during brand communication exposure — such as withdrawing attention from a message that is too intense — we can conduct message testing that uses biometric measures in a scientifically valid and practically valuable manner.

The "brand" in the media content that participants were exposed to in our experiment was in essence, a defined political viewpoint.  However, observations from the study can be applied to other brand communication where the environment is also emotionally charged. The biometric response pattern identified in our study could also be a useful tool in evaluating health care messages — including product advertising such as prescription drug ads. It could also be particularly useful in evaluating the effectiveness of advertising during or after a crisis.  The British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf comes to mind.

The results of our study on political media content have reaffirmed my general opinion about the usefulness of biometric measures.  These measures are particularly useful in helping brands determine how to effectively use emotional content in brand messaging.  And even more importantly, biometric measures can be used to design brand communications for targeted individuals when their pre-existing feelings toward a brand or an issue make communication more challenging.

My research team is continuing data collection and analysis on this project, and I will share insights about the impact of emotions evoked by the political programs and the responses to embedded advertisements in a future post.