Face the Nation: Seeing Secrets in Candidates' Mugs

Although President Barack Obama is substantially boosted by the killing of Osama Bin Laden, and a relatively unknown few Republicans are debating Thursday night in Greenville, South Carolina, Campaign 2012 nevertheless is starting to take shape. Many Americans will meet GOP contenders for the first time. But what the presidential hopefuls say may not matter that much. Their faces may be doing the heavy lifting. A scientific, emotional “facial coding” of the candidates and their expressions may determine who gains traction and who gets the nomination.

Campaigns and the public will soon be inundated with information on how candidates are tracking and their odds for success ("the horse race"). Politicians and the populace will turn to social media to influence and gauge our opinions and moods. But few candidates and voters are likely aware of “facial media” (you heard it here first) and the science of “facial coding.”

After the 2010 the midterm elections, more campaigns than ever began using neuromarketing techniques , that is, studying the brains of voters in order to craft messages that would appeal to them and win votes at the polls. Turning the tables now in 2011, neuromarketing researchers can measure candidates’ own brain-driven facial movements and emotions, in order to assess their performance, fine-tune campaign marketing, or even predict election outcomes.

Dan Hill, president of Sensory Logic and author of Emotionomics and About Face, is a facial coding expert who works with leading Fortune 150 companies, professional sports teams, and government agencies (e.g. TSA). Sensory Logic works with clients who market to consumers by measuring their emotional facial responses to various stimuli in an effort maximize appeal. Companies also hire Hill to help with employee recruitment and talent management.

Hill has been diagnosing candidates and predicting elections since 2004. In October 2007, he had Obama 2-1 emerging as the Democratic presidential nominee when a famous former White House advisor and current GOP pundit had him at 20-1. He was ahead of the pack in predicting the demises of Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson. Historically, Hill says, the happier candidate triumphs (think frowny Dole, Kerry, McCain, etc.). Sensory Logic uses proprietary Cartesian Graphs to measure and score the impact, appeal, and engagement, emoted and emitted, by the candidate’s face. A person can show four types of smiles but a “’true smile’ which is a strong natural smile seen around the eyes and mouth” is more rare, distinctive, and powerful. Hill’s analysis suggests when a politician should drop out or not even enter the race (when his heart, or face, is not in it).

Fast Company, exclusively, met with Hill to understand his methodology and get an initial read and deconstruction of the Republican faces of 2012. This first-ever facial coding of the full presidential field is based on Hill’s methodology, which correlates 23 Facial Action Units to 7 Core Emotions plus the widely accepted Big 5 Personality Traits model producing Sensory Logic’s EmoTraits®. [The methodology builds off of a 19th century foundation laid by biologist Charles Darwin and refined more recently by Paul Ekman.]

Several of Hill’s conclusions drawn from the candidate analysis:

• "Chris Christie (who says he won't run for president) is the most negative, making him a logical VP choice to tap into the Tea Party's anti-establishment anger."

• "Mitch Daniels and John Huntsman are the antithesis of Trump: Trump is most intense, while they are the least intense and the most understated."

• "If Romney wins the nomination, Buddy Roemer could be a natural VP choice--fellow businessman and the same emotional profile while adding regional diversity.”

For our own visualization of Hill's full analysis of the current crop of prospective candidates--and what their faces are saying about their mood and their odds, click here.

But how reliable and useful are the analyses and findings? Hill tells Fast Company he has not been hired by political campaigns; but his client list is growing, diversifying, and becoming more global, he says. Recently Sensory Logic clients asked that their names be removed from the firm’s Web site due to project confidentiality and competitive reasons. With the assistance of Ekman, the CIA uses their own facial coding and “microexpressions” analysis in recruiting and conducting espionage. What did they recently glean from Bin Laden’s facial gestures? Hill also revealed he was asked though the BBC by an unknown sponsor to interview and code people in Karachi, Pakistan (he declined).

Fred Davis, a seasoned political consultant who has advised George W. Bush and John McCain on their presidential campaigns (he will soon work for former US Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, Jr., whose entry into the presidential race is all but assured), extols the tactics of neuromarketing and has confirmed their use in his past campaign work. He thinks Hill’s facial coding approach and findings are interesting but says perhaps just a "clearly written analysis of what people feel in their gut when they see a candidate … I'd put this technology in the category of extensive focus groups on demeanor and personality. Nice to have, but quite a luxury. [It] probably never would be given significance."

Hill concedes some challenges and limitations of political facial coding. The data is based on his own observation and coding and using other (not as proficient or expert) coders might mean less reliability and consistency. Also, the analysis and findings derive from a limited sample of candidate speeches. What if the sample pool happens to be based on a candidate’s few bad hair days? And while politicians cannot fake their facial muscle movements and those corresponding “core emotions,” they could fudge to a degree and manipulate the "personality traits" they want to project.

Darryl Howard, who has applied the neuromarketing methods of "muscle, pupil, and skin response" on a number of successful GOP campaigns, finds Hill’s facial coding approach useful and the data valuable. "Hill’s understanding of how the human body gives information both voluntarily and involuntary is brilliant. And this [facial coding] information can be very helpful to the voter in making their choice in an election."

Hill thinks the data can also help a candidate understand how he or she can differentiate from the field--as a brand, (e.g. if the pack shows anger, then stand out as bright), or to assess the competition, strengths, and weaknesses. The coding may point to the need for a candidate to be truer to his or her authentic emotions versus being staged (think Gore), or to be more singular and polar emotionally and personality-wise, instead of all over the map and bland.

The 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debates famously underscored the power of mass media and ascendant television to shape elections and shined a harsh light on candidate facial expressions. In 2008, no one exploited the power of emerging social media channels more effectively than Barack Obama. In 2012, who can turn facial media and smiles into victory?

This content was originally published on FastCompany.com

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