Neuroscience Helps Marketers Judge Ads' Impact

For decades, television networks have relied on ratings to sell advertisements. Now, a company, NeuroFocus, studies the brain's responses to TV scenes and commercials to find out more about a viewer's attention span, memory and level of engagement.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

And now for an update on commercials.

(Soundbite of TV commercial)

Unidentified Announcer #1: Your world delivered.

(Soundbite of TV commercial)

Unidentified Announcer #2: Learn which companies to trust and which to avoid.

(Soundbite of TV commercial)

Unidentified Announcer #3: Maximum-strength medicine provides fast pain relief.

(Soundbite of TV commercial)

Unidentified Announcer #4: Kills weeds, not your hands.

(Soundbite of TV commercial)

Unidentified Announcer #5: Maintains healthy cholesterol safely, naturally.

(Soundbite of TV commercial)

Unidentified Announcer #6: Offer applies with enrollment in triple advantage.

AMOS: Marketers call that clutter. It's sometimes hard to sort through all that clutter and figure out which commercials viewers find persuasive. A company called Neurofocus has a new approach to rating their effectiveness. It studies brain activity to figure out what TV audiences like.

First, they hook you up to a machine that measures your brain waves. Then, they turn on the TV. NPR's Kim Masters reports.

KIM MASTERS: CBS still has an old-fashioned method of evaluating its programming and promotions. It gets people together in focus groups, and it asks them what they think. But lately, the network has become interested in the brain.

Mr. DAVID POLTRACK (Executive, CBS): What has happened now is the environment has gotten so much noisier, that this type of research has gained a new relevance.

MASTERS: That's CBS executive David Poltrack explaining why the network has recently hired Neurofocus. Neurofocus does its work inside a nondescript building on a street corner in Berkeley, California. I decided to let the company test-drive my brain. Robert Knight is a professor of neuroscience at Berkeley and a Neurofocus consultant.

Professor ROBERT KNIGHT (Neuroscience, Berkeley; Consultant, Neurofocus): What we're going to do now, you're having this cap put on, and we're going to record, with each one of those little sensors, electrical activity being generated from underlying brain cells.

MASTERS: Neurophysiologist Kate Reynolds fits a perforated cap on my head. Luckily, it's a shade of maroon that's a good color for me.

Ms. KATE REYNOLDS (Neurophysiologist, Neurofocus): And then I put a little bit of gel, it's like a leave-in condition. It's actually pretty nice. I put a little bit in each of the holes, and I'm just going to snap some sensors in. These go on like buttons. They don't actually touch you.

MASTERS: Okay, I'm not scared - not very.

Reynolds also puts on sensors to track my eye movements.

Ms. REYNOLDS: I think you can go ahead and stand up slowly, and there's that room, back over there. Just go straight ahead.

MASTERS: I sit in the dark, watching a commercial for a television show on the Discovery Channel. I've been told to keep my face relaxed as I watch nature scenes flash across the screen. A.K. Pradeep is the founder of Neurofocus, and he gives our producer the color commentary.

Mr. A.K. PRADEEP (Founder, Neurofocus): In real time, actually she's watching the video, her brain signals are taken, analyzed, cleaned up, processed, and these metrics are extracted from the brainwaves.

MASTERS: The results are supposed to show three things: whether I'm paying attention, whether I'm emotionally engaged and whether I'm likely to remember what I'm seeing. Apparently, my brain is hard at work.

Mr. PRADEEP: Well, you can see there's a lot of attention the video's commanding. She's also getting emotionally engaged, and there are some things that she's pulling into memory, also.

MASTERS: After I'm unhooked, Pradeep shows me a palette of scenes from the ads.

Mr. PRADEEP: What is highlighted in red, right, are the scenes that you found particularly interesting. The zebra thing showed up, the little monkeys showed up, then the penguins walking showed up.

MASTERS: It doesn't seem surprising that I was engaged by penguins and monkeys, but Pradeep says the Neurofocus studies are far more useful to advertisers, television networks and film studios than tools like focus groups or polls.

In those settings, he says, test subjects may not answer questions with candor because they censor themselves.

Mr. PRADEEP: You have your parents, your teachers, your pastor or your rabbi, and everybody's standing around you, telling you you can't be saying this. You shouldn't be saying it this way, and you can't be rating five. It's proper to rate it only a three.

MASTERS: He also argues that typical television network tests can be misleading. For example, audience members are often given a dial to turn up when they like something and down when they don't, but Pradeep says it's hard to remain focused on a scene while simultaneously figuring out whether to turn a knob and how far.

The bottom line, according to Pradeep?

Mr. PRADEEP: This evolving field of neuroscience, young as it may be, offers a level of clarity and certainty far beyond anything that's offered today.

MASTERS: It's that sort of claim that doesn't sit right with UCLA neuroscience professor Russell Poldrack. He has no association with Neurofocus or its competitors. He's impressed that some leading experts consult with Neurofocus, but he doesn't think the science supports the idea that the Neurofocus tests provide better insight than traditional focus groups. He reads from the Neurofocus Web site.

Professor RUSSELL POLDRACK (Neuroscience, University of California, Los Angeles): Pure, instantaneous, unfiltered responses offer more accurate and reliable insights than other consumer research methodologies. I think that's the kind of claim that science doesn't necessarily exist for, at least published science.

MASTERS: Poldrack says brain studies can show whether a person is paying attention and whether that person is engaged. They can suggest that a person is likely to remember something, though he notes that most research has studied whether information is remembered for an hour or a day. That might not be long enough to affect your next trip to the supermarket. But CBS executive David Poltrack says Neurofocus might provide fresh insight. For example, CBS has studied promotions for its own shows and found that audiences were tuning out critical information.

Mr. POLTRACK: We've told people that there's a great, new, exciting program coming on, but they forget immediately when and where - at what time and on what day.

MASTERS: So CBS hopes brain science will help it tweak its ads so people will remember those key points, and Poltrack says it can be useful in other ways. Sometimes, audiences don't say they have a strong reaction to a scene, the brain studies reveal that they do. But the brain data don't reveal whether audience members love or hate what they've seen. For that, the network must still rely on the traditional approach of asking them how they feel.

Brain science is still in its infancy, Poltrack says. And…

Mr. POLTRACK: It's value is limited compared to what it potentially could be.

MASTERS: Does that potential include implanting suggestions that would drive people to buy a particular brand? Neurofocus consultant Robert Knight says he would never engage in mind control.

Mr. KNIGHT: Now with that said, are we going to try to make an advertising agency produce a clearer, crisper ad? If you want to do call that mind control, then we're into mind control. But in terms of making you pick something you don't want for a reason you don't understand, I would never want to go there.

MASTERS: And even if he did, the science is nowhere near that kind of understanding of the brain - at least not yet. Kim Masters, NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.