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Advertisers Seek Answers from Neuroscience

Neuromarketing promises to measure what people feel when they see ads, but the science is unsettled.

During the Super Bowl this year, as the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks battled in front of a television audience of 114 million, about 50 volunteers, paid $150 each, sat watching the game in a darkened office. Each wore equipment to measure heart rate and breathing. The research, carried out at the Boston-based company Innerscope, is meant to measure the emotional effects of TV’s most expensive advertising, which costs $4 million for 30 seconds.

Known as consumer neuroscience, or neuromarketing, this type of investigation probes people’s unconscious responses to advertising in order to help identify winning ads. For instance, the United States Postal Service is working with researchers using imaging machines to see if direct mail lights up certain parts of the brain that e-mails don’t. Spanish-language broadcaster Univision has paid dozens of young Hispanics to don EEG caps and measured their brain waves while they watched ads in English, Spanish, or Spanglish to better understand their impact.

The idea of neuromarketing started to win wide attention five years ago, although there’s conflicting evidence about how well it works. A 2011 report by the Advertising Research Foundation, paid for by companies including Clorox and General Motors, concluded that the technology was not yet “bona fide advertising science.”

The techniques—which include cameras that spot facial expressions—are meant to replace pen-and-paper surveys or focus groups, in which consumers are asked if they can remember ads and whether they plan to buy the product shown. That business, known as copy testing, is worth about $750 million a year globally and is part of a larger global market for ad effectiveness research estimated at $2.5 billion, says David Brandt, executive vice president for advertising effectiveness strategy at Nielsen.

Since 2011, Nielsen has operated a division called Nielsen Neuro, which uses EEG measurements of brain waves to study ads at 11 laboratories located around the world. According to Brandt, Nielsen has studied more than 100 commercials and linked the EEG results to actual changes in product sales. The division also carried out the work for Univision, which found that Hispanics reacted better to Spanish-language ads. Brandt says neuromarketing technologies account for about 4 percent of the copy testing market but are growing quickly.

The techniques—which include cameras that spot facial expressions—are meant to replace pen-and-paper surveys or focus groups, in which consumers are asked if they can remember ads and whether they plan to buy the product shown.

More than a dozen companies, most of them small, offer neuroscience tools to customers today. Perhaps the biggest name in the field is Nielsen. The company has earned patents on new types of EEG caps and is trying to come up with cheaper, more portable ways to measure consumer reactions, hoping that if they become as cheap as paper surveys and can be used on a wider scale—in malls, not just in labs—they will come to have more impact.

The Super Bowl project is an annual event for Innerscope, which emerged out of research at the MIT Media Lab that looked at the physiological responses of poker bluffers and speed daters. The company works with several technologies, but on game day it was using a belt to measure subjects’ heart rate and breathing while electrodes taped to their fingers tracked galvanic skin response, some of the same measures polygraphs use to spot the heightened emotions caused by telling lies. At Innerscope, these readings are combined into what the company calls an “engagement trace”—a line that moves up and down as an ad progresses, reflecting the viewer’s emotional state, says Carl Marci, a psychologist who is chief science officer at the company. The more emotional the viewer, says Marci, the better the chance he or she will remember an ad.

TV companies are looking for technologies that can protect their $78 billion in annual U.S. ad revenue against changing viewer habits and help match the sort of click-by-click tracking advertisers enjoy on the Web, says Dan ­Aversano, senior vice president for client and consumer insights at Turner Broadcasting, the owner of CNN and an Innerscope research partner. “We can bring that into television,” Aversano says.

At its research lab in New York City, Turner has belted up participants who use a smartphone or tablet while watching TV and found that although they looked at the TV less during ad breaks, they remained engaged with the TV audio track. In a report it began circulating last year, Turner recommends that its advertisers consider snapping viewers’ eyes back using “sirens, alarms, screams” just before a brand name appears.

While consumer neuroscience provides some interesting clues to designing ads, it’s still unclear whether these tools can predict an ad’s ultimate success. Recently, the Advertising Research Foundation paid for a large research project at Temple University’s Fox School of Business in which volunteers watched ads while being measured using four different neuromarketing technologies: eye tracking, biometric measures, EEG, and fMRI. The results were compared with real-world changes in product sales that had been associated with those ads over two years.

While the study wasn’t definitive, the results show that consumer neuroscience has further to go. Vinod Venkatraman, a researcher who led the Temple work, says the only technology that seemed to predict anything paper surveys couldn’t was placing a person inside an fMRI scanner. If a part of the brain called the ventral striatum lit up while the subject viewed the ad, he said, it seemed to have a strong correlation with the sales figures.

During Innerscope’s test in Boston, one of the 55 ads that performed best by its measures was a spot for Budweiser beer featuring a lost puppy rescued by Clydesdale horses.

But it wasn’t until the final minutes of the Super Bowl, when a touchdown and a last-minute goal-line interception changed the course of the game and its outcome, that engagement really soared. That was probably great for advertisers, but it was completely out of their control.

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