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Back to the Lab: Neurosciences’ Contribution to Evaluating Ads and Programming


Last week I attended the SoCal MRA Entertainment Research Forum titled Product Placement, Sponsorship Integration, and Advertising Effectiveness.  The 4 speakers represented various facets of the entertainment and research industries.  What was particularly interesting is the continued investment in a neuroscientific approach to understanding advertising and programming effectiveness.  This is captivating to me, since my Ph.D. dissertation was conducted in UCLA’s Medical School, studying the anatomical and physiological differences between male and female brains, and I started my grad work in a lab that used EEGs as part of biofeedback training to help pilots maintain alertness.

In a nutshell (or skull, sometimes one and the same): neuroscientific approaches use one of a few technologies to assess our physical responses to visual stimuli such as ads or brief snippets of programming.  There’s an informative blogger, Roger Dooley, who tracks this developing industry.  There are two basic approaches in use these days:

  1. EEG – this involves a cap placed on the respondent’s head with lots of small sensitive devices that read changes in brain wave activity that manage to be read through the skull.  Pair it with an eye tracking device, and you can track changes in brain wave activity moment by moment in response to particular parts of the visual stimuli.  Add devices to read other physical measures (galvanic skin response, heart rate, etc.) and you can tie this to other measures of engagement with what is seen on screen.  Downside: rather gross measures.
  2. fMRI – this provides the deepest read of what is going on in the brain in response to stimuli.  We can see different parts of the brain “light up” as the brain processes various visuals.  Neuroscientists apply their knowledge of the function of specific areas of the brain to interpret these patterns.  Downside: very costly; respondent has to be inside an fMRI machine, that’s a very unnatural setting.

In last week’s forum, Bruce Rosenblum, EVP Warner Brothers Media Research & Insights, presented a compelling case history of their experimentation with the EEG method at their state of the art media lab.  He was quite effective in setting this new neuroscience tool in context, as just one of the tools researchers can deploy. The case history demo’d WB’s evaluations of engagement with not just 30 second ads, but entire 3.5 minute programming segments.  In this case, the segments were Brand Integration segments, a 3.5 min piece showcasing a sponsor’s (Walgreen’s) product (mobile health van), integrated into a talk show.   The moment by moment analysis enabled his team to determine what aspects of a segment were particularly engaging.  They can use this type of information to fine tune the scripting, the visuals, and the flow of these costly segments. Some general rules are emerging from the WB work, and they are quite consistent with tenets developed without this hi tech approach.  The neuroscience data may not only validate these tenets, but also refine our measurements, making them more actionable.

  • arouse curiosity, but not confusion
  • speak to the benefits not the features
  • use natural conversations, humor, and narratives – not technical lingo, and definitely not marketing sales-y lingo
  • interesting …don’t showcase Brand logos at the start, that triggers “ad alert!” and people disengage

This is an exciting new world for marketers and consumer insights, a field that is very much in its infancy, as the panelists acknowledged.  The links between brain waves or “lit up” brain areas and behavior or attitudes have yet to be mapped in any depth.  This is just a quick synopsis of a very interesting forum topic.   If you would like to discuss this in more depth, please contact me at 805 497 9090.

One Response to Back to the Lab: Neurosciences’ Contribution to Evaluating Ads and Programming

  1. How would you apply what you learned to your market research work?

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