The Stack Archive

TV Networks turn to neuroscience to commercialise viewers

Wed 4 Nov 2015

Neuroscientific marketing is a rising trend for U.S. television networks, two of which have recently opened research laboratories devoted to digging deeper into how the consumer interacts directly with advertising, and also with the shows in which advertising is featured.

Viacom Inc.’s New York-based laboratory is concentrating primarily on brainwave activity from test subjects who are given media to watch or interact with, and the project’s core objective is to determine the timing of ads. The general notion behind the research which makes use of electroencephalogram (EEG) brain readings, is that scenes which gain emotional response from expectant mothers might be an apposite queue for baby-related items, or that a scene which makes the viewer feel hungry is an obvious point to present a food-related ad (presumably for a deliverable foodstuff which can capitalise on the transient feeling).

NBCUniversal opened a similar lab in Orlando in September, which provides ersatz domestic environments in which volunteers’ faces and biometric responses to potential network output are monitored and analysed. NBCU’s president of research and media development Alan Wurtzel observes “This is the closest to what’s going on inside your brain.”

Testing of this nature can cost $30-$100,000 on a per-study basis, double the cost of the traditional focus groups which industry has relied on to help make advertising more effective, but since market fragmentation and technological trends such as time-shifting have made it so hard to get a viewer even watching an ad, its imperative for the industry to make its spots more effective.

Nielsen, for decades the brand leader in audience analytics, acquired neuroscience research company Innerscope earlier this year, and uses EEGs, eye-tracking, facial coding and biometrics to get nearer the truth of how test subjects feel about what they are watching.

nielsen-neuroscience“The three primary metrics that we measure,” says Joe Willke, President at Nielsen Neuro “are tension – so we’ll know second by second which seconds they’re paying attention to…memory activation, [regarding] whether long-term memory is being activated by parts of the commercial…and whether the commercial is emotionally engaging. By engagement we mean ‘approach avoidance’ – we’ll know if they’re being drawn in by the content or whether something is pushing them away.”

Retinal tracking is not an indication of interest, just attention, and the objective of neuro-marketing research is to deliver the desired message at a moment in which the input has stimulated a significant emotional response from the viewer, ideally one which triggers long-term memory associations.

Despite Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton’s anticipation of this level of scientific scrutiny in ad research in his 1981 sci-fi outing Looker, the ad research industry has been relatively slow to show faith in biometric data. “Thirty years ago it was mainly an academic exercise,” says Michael E Smith, VP of Consumer Neuroscience Solutions at Nielsen Neuro. “Just the fact that you could measure brain activity while people were interacting with marketing communications was a new thing.

“We’re really seeing things change from an exploratory activity to a more routine mainstream activity…The companies themselves are developing more internal experts in the domains because they’re finding it to be more and more of a need to have [people] within their own organisations who are essentially neuro-experts…”


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