Marketing Jun 2, 2015

Can Neu­ro­science Build a Bet­ter Ad?

Brain sci­ence has the poten­tial to trans­form the focus group.

Based on insights from

Moran Cerf

Sam Barnett

For decades, there was a stan­dard tech­nique for mea­sur­ing the effec­tive­ness of tele­vi­sion adver­tise­ments: the focus group. Gath­er a group of peo­ple into a room, show them an ad, and ask sur­vey ques­tions about what they saw. Focus groups, of course, have evolved since the ear­ly days on Madi­son Avenue. Many researchers now use dial-test­ing tech­niques that reg­is­ter the inten­si­ty of pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive reac­tions to ads in real time, rather than mere­ly ask­ing peo­ple for their opin­ions. But even these meth­ods have lim­i­ta­tions. Fac­tors such as unre­li­able mem­o­ry, self-decep­tion, and the desire to please the researcher” can lead to respons­es that do not accu­rate­ly reflect the myr­i­ad ways ads engage viewers.

Moran Cerf, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at the Kel­logg School and a neu­ro­sci­en­tist by train­ing, thinks neu­ro­science can get around some of these prob­lems — a propo­si­tion he and PhD stu­dent Sam Bar­nett have been putting to the test.

Peo­ple often answer ques­tions the way they want to be rather than the way they actu­al­ly are,” explains Cerf. Peo­ple buy clothes that the skin­nier ver­sion of them would wear. They buy gym mem­ber­ships like a per­son who would exer­cise dai­ly, and they set the alarm not think­ing that they will push the snooze but­ton mul­ti­ple times before they actu­al­ly wake up.”

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A tech­nique like EEG, how­ev­er, can expose dis­crep­an­cies between what the con­scious brain wants (or says it wants) and what the uncon­scious brain actu­al­ly demands.

Your Brain on Ads

In a study con­duct­ed dur­ing the Super Bowl by Cerf and Bar­nett (and still being writ­ten up), mul­ti­ple par­tic­i­pants, most­ly from the Kel­logg com­mu­ni­ty, watched the game while wear­ing EEG caps that record elec­tri­cal sig­nals from the brain. Addi­tion­al­ly, par­tic­i­pants’ facial reac­tions were record­ed with a video cam­era so that their emo­tions could be lat­er ana­lyzed, and they answered sur­vey ques­tions in real time. (Many of the sur­vey ques­tions were mod­eled after the Kel­logg 2015 Super Bowl Ad Review ques­tions.) The researchers won­dered: How effec­tive, mem­o­rable, atten­tion grab­bing, emo­tion­al­ly stim­u­lat­ing, and engag­ing did these par­tic­i­pants find the ads?

In many cas­es, all three data-col­lec­tion meth­ods led to sim­i­lar con­clu­sions. How­ev­er, the neur­al data often pro­vid­ed addi­tion­al insights. For exam­ple, some ads trig­gered par­tic­u­lar­ly strong momen­tary respons­es in the brains of women ver­sus men, or vice ver­sa. Oth­er ads stim­u­late sub­con­scious anx­i­eties or pref­er­ences, which can be detect­ed via EEG but are missed by more tra­di­tion­al meth­ods. In oth­er words, the brain some­times knew” more than the par­tic­i­pants report­ed on their sur­veys. (For more insight into some of Cerf’s method­olo­gies, read our longer fea­ture here.)

We can now help com­pa­nies fig­ure out the opti­mal length to make the ad for the Super Bowl, poten­tial­ly sav­ing mil­lions of dollars.”

Such high­ly accu­rate cus­tomer insights offer obvi­ous ben­e­fits to adver­tis­ers. They could use the tech­nol­o­gy to deter­mine how fre­quent­ly an ad must be run, for instance, to be most effec­tive. They could also use the tech­nol­o­gy to deter­mine when an ad should be run. We can deter­mine which ads should be placed in a sequence togeth­er to max­i­mize engage­ment,” says Barnett.

And is that extra-long spot real­ly a good idea? If a Super Bowl ad costs a mil­lion dol­lars for 10 extra sec­onds, and I can now look at your brain and see that the same ad — whether it is 30 sec­onds or 20 sec­onds — is just as mem­o­rable, emo­tion­al, and engag­ing, then we can now help com­pa­nies fig­ure out the opti­mal length to make the ad for the Super Bowl, poten­tial­ly sav­ing mil­lions of dol­lars,” says Cerf. Iden­ti­fy­ing the most and least engag­ing moments in an ad is key to this process, and the real-time nature of EEG makes this possible.

That Extra Ten Percent

The tech­nique even has the poten­tial to change how adver­tis­ers talk about abstract con­cepts like engage­ment or emo­tion. When some­one wants an ad and they say, give me some­thing that is emo­tion­al and engag­ing,’” Cerf says, we can now talk in num­bers rather than more flu­id terms. We can say this ad gets you a mem­o­ra­bil­i­ty score that is 20 per­cent high­er than anoth­er ad. If you would rather sac­ri­fice mem­o­ra­bil­i­ty for an emo­tion­al nar­ra­tive, then you might want to go for an ad that is ranked high on a dif­fer­ent dimension.”

There are, of course, lim­i­ta­tions to using neu­ro­science tech­niques. They are still rel­a­tive­ly expen­sive (EEG sys­tems cost tens of thou­sands of dol­lars), and they require tech­ni­cal exper­tise that does not exist in many com­pa­nies. It can also be a chal­lenge for lead­ers to con­vince peo­ple with­in their orga­ni­za­tions to make use of neu­ro­science at the expense of what they have used for decades before.

Still, neu­ro­science may offer the most accu­rate mea­sure of ad effec­tive­ness there is. Lis­ten­ing to peo­ple will always give you a high lev­el of accu­ra­cy,” Cerf says, but look­ing at their brain gives you this extra 10 per­cent.” For big com­pa­nies invest­ing in mega-adver­tis­ing events, the pay­off may be worth it.

Featured Faculty

Moran Cerf

Associate Professor of Marketing

About the Writer

Drew Calvert is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

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