Leave our brains alone, Dr. Westen!

In September 2000, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) launched an investigation of a TV ad produced for the Republican National Committee (RNC). The inquiry came at the behest of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who complained about a subliminal message hidden in the RNC’s commercial. The word “RATS” flashed in one frame about bureaucrats. Wyden wanted the FCC to decide whether the ad was “deliberate, deceptive, and subliminal, contrary to the public interest.” The FCC spent almost six months pondering these matters before dismissing the case.

If Sen. Wyden is still concerned with the public interest as it relates to political advertising, he may want to investigate the ways and means of Drew Westen, an Emory University and National Institute of Mental Health-funded clinical psychologist who aspires to be a spin doctor rather than a healer of sick minds. Westen, as any political junkie knows, is the current darling wunderkind of Democratic political consulting. Bill Clinton thinks he’s brilliant. Howard Dean writes glowing blurbs for Westen’s new book. Democrats are paying money just to be in his presence.

Westen co-authored a study paper concluding that negative subliminal messages could taint impressions of candidates. Harvard psychologist Philip Holzman called for more studies of subliminals, lest we be “at the mercy of the politicians.” Last year, The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics published an experimental study by two psychologists concluding that attitudes were “significantly affected” by a subliminal “RATS” frame. Westen was leading a principled and science-based counterattack against psychologically manipulative advertising.

Normative responses to the original RATS ad were sharp and swift. Both Republicans and Democrats were disturbed that political operatives might engage in precognitive manipulations of voters’ minds. The New York Times raised ethical concerns based on industry norms; other papers used term like “brainwashing” in op-ed pieces. But nothing much happened. And the FCC didn’t act.

Westen stewed, not just about RATS, but about Republican success generally. Emory released a statement in 2004 for Westen saying “Florida in 2000 and ongoing attempts to disenfranchise voters can shake Americans’ foundational belief that we have a democracy.” He has also been frustrated by Democratic candidates and officeholders, telling The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Jay Bookman in an interview: “Every Democrat who gets on the air is making things up as he or she goes along. Democrats have no shared language; they have nothing like talking points. They don’t have the kind of messaging machine that Republicans have. There’s nothing like that on the left.”

The frustrated clinician has unleashed a torrent of activity. He’s obtained grant support for scanning the partisan brain, applied his considerable scientific understanding of the cerebral cortex and neural networks, written a book about it all, formed a company for consulting, and is helping another firm devise strategies for mind manipulations, including the use of subliminal messaging.

Westen stakes his claim to superiority over other Democratic consultants straight up. Declaring traditional research methods relics of the 20th century, Westen warns on his thinkscan.com site: “If you rely too heavily on polls or focus groups, you’re only scratching the surface — and you’ll often get the wrong answers.” He urges prospective customers to “Dig deeper.
Scan.” On his consulting website (westenstrategies.com) he promises: “Persuasion is about activating the right networks.”
This boast is displayed over a graphic of the brain’s neural networks.

I find all this a little scary and Orwellian. If Brave New World consultants like Westen think political strategies should begin with brain scans and subliminal messages, we need some ethical guidelines post-haste.


Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.