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For quite some time now, media and marketing experts have long sought a reliable method of getting responses from the general population to future products and messages. According to a recent study done by the City College of New York, (CCNY) in partnership with Georgia Tech, it looks like the brain responses of just a few individuals are a remarkably strong predictor. By analyzing the brainwaves of 16 individuals as they watched mainstream TV content, researchers were able to accurately guess the preferences of large TV audiences, up to 90 percent in the case of Super Bowl commercials. These findings appear in a paper entitled “Audience Preferences Are Predicted by Temporal Reliability of Neural Processing”, which was recently published in the latest edition of Nature Communications.
Alternative methods such as self-reports are characterized by problems such as people conforming their responses to their own values and expectations. However, brain signals measured through electroencephalography (EEG) can, in principle, alleviate this shortcoming by providing immediate physiological responses immune to such self-biasing. According to Lucas Parra, the senior author of the report, explained that when two people watch a video, their brains respond similarly, but only if the video is engaging. Popular shows and commercials draw our attention and make our brainwaves very reliable.
In the study, participants watched scenes from the TV show The Walking Dead, and then several commercials from the 2012 and 2013 Super Bowls. EEG electrodes were then placed on their heads to capture brain activity. The reliability of the recorded neural activity was then compared to audience reactions in the general population using publicly available social media data provided by the Harmony Institute and ratings from USA Today’s Super Bowl Ad Meter. Brain activity among participants watching The Walking Dead predicted 40 percent of the associated Twitter traffic. When brainwaves were in agreement, the number of tweets went up as well. Brainwaves were also able to predict 60 percent of the Nielsen ratings that measure the size of a TV audience.
The study was even more accurate when comparing preferences for Super Bowl ads. For instance, researchers saw very similar brainwaves from their participants as they watched a 2012 Budweiser commercial that featured a beer-fetching dog. The general public voted the ad as their second favorite that year. The study then found little agreement in the brain activity among participants when watching a GoDaddy commercial with a kissing couple, which was among the worst-rated Super Bowl ads in 2012. The CCNY researchers collaborated with Matthew Bezdek and Eric Schumacher from Georgia Tech to identify which brain regions are involved and explain the mechanisms. With functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), they found evidence that brainwaves for engaging ads could be driven by activity in visual, auditory and attention brain areas.