Brain scans and EEG are ad industry's latest toys - er, tools.
On one side, we have the creatives claiming that genius can't be quantified. On the other, the bean counters demanding an end to the Wannamaker Conundrum.
Could neuroscience help brands and agencies worm deeper into the consumer unconscious with images and messages that bypass the critical, thinking brain to tickle the amygdala, the brain's seat of emotion?
That's the sales pitch of a growing number of technology vendors in the nascent field known as neuromarketing, most of whom participated in an Advertising Research Foundation project, details of which were released on Tuesday.
The first phase of ARF's NeuroStandards Collaboration Project, an independent review of current neuromarketing methods, began in September 2010. Eight research suppliers collected and analyzed data, then submitted reports to a review panel that included not only industry folk but also academics. The project aims to evaluate the science underlying those methods and the validity of the conclusions.
The study looked at facial coding, biometrics, electroencephalography (EEG), quantitative EEG, facial electromyography (fEMG), steady-state topography (SST) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
These new technologies raise as many new questions as they answer. For example, ARF's report said, "Reactions to one scene within a commercial are likely to be influenced by the preceding content. Interactions between the images, sounds and words need to be untangled to pinpoint causes of viewer response."
When watching a video, the viewer's reaction at a given point may reflect anticipation of the next images rather than a reaction to images seen at that moment, making it hard to sort out what he is reacting to.
These academics will be available to agencies and marketers as the Expert Review Network - standing by to help make sense of the geeky and sometimes conflicting information to come from the neuromarketing vendors.
"This takes the academic standard of peer review and infuses it into the industry dialog," says Duane Varan, Ph.D., a professor at Australia's Murdoch University and head of The Disney Media and Advertising Lab. "If you're a client and wanted to use any of these new measurement tools, you wouldn't know what part of a report was firm science and which was interpretation. Here is a network that is now available to clients so they can get that layer of support."
Dan Hill, PhD, president of Sensory Logic, which participated in the ARF project, welcomes the industry scrutiny.
"You have a lot of people who are not very well informed as to the claims and counterclaims. People are intimidated, confused and easily snowed," he says. "I'm in favor of quality control. It's not as if a traditional survey or other tool has proven itself to have incredible accuracy."
One of the most high-profile neuromarketing companies, NeuroFocus, was missing from the ARF roster. Instead, the company, which counts Nielsen as a strategic investor, unveiled Mynd, a portable, wireless EEG device that it says can be used to easily track brain activity in the field. The brain waves of subjects wearing the lightweight device can be transmitted wirelessly to iPads, smartphones and other devices.
"My clients are very excited in unleashing this one for testing in native environments, like a store, a mall, a showroom, restaurant or your own home," says NeuroFocus CEO A. K. Pradeep, PhD. "Now, people can do what they do naturally, and you can monitor their brainwaves to infer how they felt in the natural environment."
NeuroFocus is actively recruiting consumers for "full-brain home panels" to test products, media and even food and beverages.
Pradeep says his company bowed out of the ARF project because it used a shootout approach to compare very disparate technologies.
"The process was flawed," he says. "For each of these technologies, there are a very different set of standards, procedures and protocols. You shouldn't throw everything together."
For each of these technologies, there are plenty of critics and caveats. There's also intense competition, not to say backbiting, among the various technology providers. At one presentation, a competitor was forcibly made to leave the room after he questioned his rival presenter.
Says Varan, "These non-verbal methods give us access to a very different level of information about what people are really experiencing. Not having that is a limitation. Having that offers a richer understanding -- but there are still a million challenges."
Ron Wright, CEO of Sands Research, a participant in ARF's NeuroStandards Collaboration Project, thinks that in five years, companies like his will nick several hundred million from the $8 billion spent annually on market research, primarily from focus group providers.
Last year, WPP-owned Millward Brown became the first agency to launch a neuroscience practice. Wright says more agencies are staffing up with neuroscientists.
"That's because they're getting RFPs and RFIs asking for neuroscience capabilities," he says. "ARF is saying go slow and test things, but most of the industry has blown by them."
[Image credit: NeuroFocus]
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Susan Kuchinskas has covered interactive advertising since its invention. The former staff writer for Adweek, Business 2.0, and M-Business covers technology, business and culture from Berkeley, CA.
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