The Science of Insight and Marketing

08 Apr 2011|Added Value

Over the past several years, tremendous strides have been made in the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience which help us more deeply understand how people process and respond to the world around them. 

There have been several new providers entering the marketplace, who measure not what is said by respondents but, instead, what is being experienced neurologically and physiologically by them when exposed to various marketing stimuli, raising a multitude of questions. 

Of note, the Advertising Research Foundation formed a new initiative last year, “NeuroStandards:  The Next Wave in Advertising” which aims to objectively and thoroughly assess their merits.  Says the ARF, “Biometric and neurological methods—like fMRI, EEG, and facial coding— have become increasingly popular in media and marketing research, but to date, no major validation studies have been conducted to properly assess neuroscience as it applies to media and advertising response.  Different vendors use different techniques, and sometimes it’s unclear what science is being used, whether science is being applied soundly, and whether biometric measures are even appropriate to the problem being addressed.” 

Indeed, all you need to do is talk to one firm to hear glaring criticisms of all the others.  From our vantage point, however, every research methodology – including traditional ones – has its pros and cons. 

In general, the techniques that have sprung up can be categorized into those that measure brain activity (fMRI or EEG) and those that measure physiological activity (eye tracking, galvanic skin response, heart rate, breathing, etc.)

Some specific commentary on each:  

fMRI (Functional Magnetic resonance Imaging) measures blood flow in the brain. When emotions are experienced blood flows into deep limbic networks which can be captured by an fMRI.  Arguably, it is the best measurement of what is happening in the brain relating to emotions, but it is limited in terms of its output; basically, it provides a measure of arousal and aversion.  fMRI’s will also provide cognitive data regarding what respondents are aware of, tending to, and remembering.  For advertising purposes, information provided by fMRIs is interesting for obtaining second by second reads, but they provide no sense of the ultimate, cumulative somatic imprint that is left.  Access to fMRI scanners is limited, and the machinery is imposing, intimidating, and expensive. 

EEG (Electro-Encephalography) measures electrical brain waves close to scalp regions. It is simpler and more practical than fMRI, but inherently more superficial, as EEG cannot provide as reliable information on the deep brain regions that are active during emotions.  Equipment is typically a cap and wires with 50+ electrodes, and application of a gel to enhance conductivity; this may introduce sample and testing biases due to limited mobility and intimidating and messy equipment.  One firm has a less invasive cap (a headband with no gels, rather than full cap), but to date has not elected to participate in the ARF validation study, making it difficult to measure the efficacy of their ‘breakthrough’ machinery.  

Heart Rate, Respiration, Galvanic Skin Response
Heart Rate, Respiration, Galvanic Skin Response and other physiological measures, provide indications of arousal, but only arousal (i.e., no insight into whether it is positive or negative).  Measures are gathered through the central nervous system, and often include the use of vests and various monitors. 

Eye-tracking measures the focus of one’s visual attention.  It can be an interesting additional diagnostic, applied to static (billboards, packaging, print ads, etc.) or moving images (film, digital ads).  Though it is the most practical, and least expensive of the set, it is quite limited.  Physiological measures that track the eyes do just that – they track the eyes. They do not measure cognition (or “seeing”). The link between point of gaze and cognition is implied but never revealed or proven. (If you have ever looked for your keys on your desk for a few minutes and not seen them right in front of you, you have experienced this difference. Eye tracking data would have concluded that you looked at these several times, that they attracted your attention and held your gaze. But even though you looked at them, there was no cognition. You did not “see” them, despite what the physiological data might imply.) 

And, in broad strokes, the use of these types of equipment predicates that:

  • Sample sizes will be tiny.  This is driven both by costs and limited equipment.  Understanding how a piece of communication is working amongst various constituencies is untenable (unless you spend massively to recruit for each of them).
  • Timing will be slowed.  Additional time is needed, both for pre-recruiting and actually conducting the research (set-up).  Since it requires in-person interviewing it also does not reap the benefits of online (cost efficiencies and true national coverage).
  • Markets will be highly restricted, as equipment isn’t necessarily located where you need it to be. 
  • Reliability is still a question mark.  Hence, the ARF project.  It’s also a highly artificial and unnatural environment for anyone to be in.  While baseline measurements are taken to factor that into the equation, it remains a bizarre situation.

Scientists, not marketers
An oft heard (and directly felt) criticism is also that these firms were created by science and scientists, not marketers and insights specialists.  Though we strongly suspect this will change as more conventional researchers are brought on board, currently the output can be overly technical and not easily digestible by those needing to act upon it. 

As well, since the main output is a graphical illustration of second by second response, there is a tendency to abuse the tool as an editing device (driving Creative teams crazy), rather than using testing to gain a  more holistic understanding of how various scenes build upon one another.

Ultimately, the general sentiment from clients (whether they conduct ad testing with us or other conventional research partners) is that that these techniques can complement and add layers of understanding to the subject at hand, but can’t stand alone as alternatives. A conclusion shared by recently released results of the ARF’s NeuroStandards initiative.

At best, they provide very interesting but partial answers.

Filling the gaps
In the instances that we have worked directly with them we’ve mostly seen corroborative sets of data, and there have been a few times when inconsistencies have stretched everyone’s thinking and drawn better conclusions.  Yet, they are still missing some of the fundamentals:  Will people know who the ad is for?  Are people taking away what you want them to? Is the ad having the desired impact in changing/reinforcing impressions of, and feelings tied to, the product/brand experience?

Which leads to a big issue that we have with all of these approaches.  The brain does not work in isolation but is driven by one’s history, context and social relationships. 

None of these techniques address a critical piece of learning revealed by Dr. Antonio Damasio, the father of this movement (author of Descartes Error, and currently Chairman of Neuroscience and Creativity at USC.)  That is, while it is interesting to see how one is responding – in the moment – to stimuli, it is not as important as understanding the residual effect of that exposure. 

Decisions are made using a complex neuro-navigational system, and are fundamentally based on the anticipated emotional consequence of making that decision (often subconsciously).  More simply stated, we will choose that which we anticipate will make us feel good.  Pure and simple.  Avoidance of negative and/or pursuit of reward. 

So, we need to measure the impact of the stimuli (advertising, signage, all other brand touchpoints) on the somatic marker (i.e., anticipated emotions) we have been building up throughout our lifetime in relation to the product/brand.  How one feels while watching an ad (i.e., the measurement taken with neuroscientific companies) may have very little to do with the emotions he/she ultimately associates with the brand experience. 

Start with the right question
As always, we urge clients to think about their and their brand’s specific needs, what the objectives of the research are, who the end-user/recipients of the insights are, how the information needs to get socialized within the organization and what actions need to be taken when considering which approach(es) to use. 

For more on Added Value’s practical approach to neuroscience and marketing, click here.

By Maggie Taylor, CEO, Added Value North America

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