How Nike’s Colin Kaepernick Ad Looks to Democrats and Republicans Based on Neuroscience

Spark Neuro studied politically polarized brains

Neuroscience companies can measure the impact ads have on biological metrics including brain waves. Getty Images
Headshot of Marty Swant

Nike’s ad with Colin Kaepernick has been polarizing, to say the least. There are plenty of opinions about the face of the brand’s 30th anniversary campaign, but does the ad mean something entirely different based on political leanings? To go beyond the tweets, headlines and viral videos, a neuroscience startup decided to explore how political biases warp the way Kaepernick is received.

Spark Neuro, a startup that conducts neuroscience tests for brands and media companies, studied how Democrats, Republicans and Independents perceived Nike’s ad. By studying the biometric data of participants—including their brain waves, heart rate and sweat glands—researchers measured how subjects reacted while watching the ad along with politicized TV commentary and user-generated videos surrounding it.

At first, the results surprised neuroscientists. For the first 40 seconds of the two-minute ad, Republicans and Democrats had similar emotions, suggesting that perhaps it wasn’t as divisive as some media outlets made it seem. However, as controversial topics were addressed—such as footage of tennis star Serena Williams and Kaepernick mentioning the struggles of refugees—Republicans began showing strong emotions, while Democrats remained steady. And then, when Kaepernick looks directly at the camera toward the end of the ad, Democrats also became more emotionally moved.

“Democrats and Republicans are putting the content right through their filter, and that changes the perspective of the ad,” said Spark Neuro CEO Spencer Gerrol. “Independents were looking at the ad and trying to not have the same filter to put it through. That can let the ad stand on its own merits, or it forces them to consider the political bent a little more carefully if they hadn’t already.”

Spark recruited 60 people in New York split evenly among the three groups. Participants knew little about what the study was, other than that they’d watch some television that included ads.

After connecting them to an EEG and eye-tracking technology, Spark showed participants a variety of related content to make sure everyone was equally aware of the ad and the context surrounding it. That included the ad itself, clips from both conservative and liberal TV channels commenting on it and footage of people burning their Nike clothing. (Prior to watching the content, Spark gave participants a survey to measure how they perceived Nike and other brands, such as Adidas, to see how they felt both before and after.)

Gerrol said emotion is not binary as many believe. Neuroscientists can tell if a feeling is negative but not if the participant is angry or surprised. It’s only after researchers talk with a subject that they’re able to better understand what was happening in the moment.

“I’ve learned that it’s something that’s delicate because of the way that people mix so many emotions together at a single time,” Gerrol said.

While he felt hopeful at first that people saw the ad in the same way regardless of political leanings, Gerrol said, the display of negative emotions was discouraging. He said negative emotions are often more powerful than positive ones in spurring action. That could lead people to vote against someone they hate rather than voting for someone they like—or, say, burning socks and shoes from a brand whose politics they don’t like.

So what about those who didn’t identify with either party?

According to Spark’s data, Independents were more emotional throughout the ad, suggesting they might have been struggling with how they felt about the issue. Gerrol said that could be because they were more cognitively engaged with the issue than they were following the tribe.

“They were trying to parse out their feelings,” he said.

@martyswant Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.