In the fall of 2010, G&R was part of a group of seven leading research firms who were invited to take part in the NeuroStandards Collaboration study undertaken by the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) to increase knowledge about and transparency in the fast developing field of biometric and neuro-physiological research. The study was sponsored by American Express, Campbell’s, Chase, Colgate-Palmolive, Clorox, ESPN, GM, Hershey’s, MillerCoors, MTV Networks, NBC Universal, and Turner. Each research company was given the same set of eight commercials to analyze using their own proprietary physiological methods which covered a range of approaches, including EEG (electrical impulses in the brain), SST (a variation on EEG), fMRI (blood flow within the brain), Facial Coding (visual analysis of facial expressions), and bio-metrics (heart and breathing rates, and skin conductance). G&R conducted research through its Continuous Emotional Response Analysis (CERA) system, which uses Facial Electromyography (fEMG) to assess emotional response to advertising and communications by measuring electrical impulses across facial muscle groups. FEMG focuses on measuring the degree of positive and negative emotional activation (called valence) that takes place when people are exposed to stimuli, in this case, watching television commercials. The system measures responses that originate in the deep brain, which occur subconsciously and are therefore uninfluenced by a viewer’s awareness of his or her thoughts or feelings about the test programming. Results were then submitted to a panel of academics for peer review to analyze the relative strengths, weaknesses, and validity of each method, and to move to greater understanding of the standards for biometric research in advertising. The ARF presented preliminary findings from this study at Advertising Week, the world’s premier gathering of marketing and communications leaders held annually in New York City. The following points provide a quick summary of where the applied science currently is:
- Neuro-physiological measurement is an important advancement in advertising research. If only for its ability to provide insight about moment-by-moment response, it is a valuable means for understanding and improving commercial performance. Although much remains to be learned about the science and the application of the science for understanding advertising performance, it is clear that the neuro-physiological constructs of arousal and valence introduce important new dimensions for understanding advertising effectiveness.
- No one neuro-physiological system is clearly better than the others in every aspect. Each system has its own strengths and weaknesses and each can reveal important insights about how people respond to advertising. To decide which one is best for a particular study, it is important to consider:
- What the study is trying to measure – just like priming is different from belief change and recall is different from persuasion, arousal is different from valence.
- The type of stimulus to be assessed – testing a 30-minute program is different from testing a 30-second commercial.
- Costs, which vary considerably among the systems.
- Because neuro-physiological systems are continuous response systems (readings are taken continuously as the person is being exposed to the commercial rather than after), they provide greater sensitivity about reaction during the internal components of the commercial than traditional after-the-fact approaches. Being able to pinpoint the specific moment of a drop or spike in activation can help creatives better optimize performance. However, isolating the cause of such changes is not always as straightforward as seeing what was going on in the commercial at that same time.
- Because neuro systems measure subconscious response, they measure non-cognitive responses more accurately than traditional systems. Non-cognitive responses are increasingly being shown to be an important instructor of behavior, including buying behavior.
- Because the various systems measure different aspects of neuro-physiological response to advertising, it is important for advertisers to start to learn about the specific measures and the value they have for their brands.
- There is little consistency in the terms and definitions used in neuro-physiological research, so systems that purport to measure the same thing might actually measure very different responses. For example, most suppliers claim to measure “engagement,” but the specific construct for what constitutes engagement varies considerably across vendors. Similarly, most vendors claim to measure “valence,” but their construct for what constitutes valence is actually arousal.
Bottom Line: When companies have important new content initiatives, neuro-physiological measurement should be considered as part of the research program on a level that is at least equal to qualitative and quantitative research. Using the results from all three approaches will yield the best insight into likely market response to messaging and how optimization can best be achieved. For more information on our system, CERA, please visit our website, or view our 8-minute PowerPoint presentation.