As long as there have been agencies placing ads in media, ad executives have been trying to understand how they influenced the way consumers think, feel and ultimately behave in relation to brands. In Madison Avenue's earliest days, they simply relied on their gut, but as advertising grew less novel and media more fragmented and cluttered, the advertising industry has sought better and more scientific methods to get inside the mind of consumers. Initially, those efforts relied on social sciences like psychology, sociology, cultural anthropology and its modern day buzzword - ethnography. Coupled with sophisticated survey methods, the rise of powerful computer processing and quantitative statistics, Madison Avenue has long tried to answer its most fundamental and, some might say, apocryphal quandary: "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I just don't know which half."
That observation, which most often is attributed to 20th-century retailer John Wanamaker, has been symbolic of the ad industry's quest to reduce the psyche of consumers - and the behaviors that result - down to simple metrics that could be used to plan, design and execute advertising and media strategies with relative precision. But the reality is that even the best of Madison Avenue's research efforts have proven to be more art than science. That is, of course, until the new brain science entered the brand game.
One of the earliest known attempts to apply the field of neuroscience to advertising and media occurred in 1998, when Starcom MediaVest Group research chief Kate Sirkin commissioned a study utilizing then state-of-the-art biometric technology developed by NASA, which could literally read people's brain waves - the electrical charges emitted by the brain when it is processing information. The technology, which originally was part of a NASA effort to understand the complex behavior of fighter pilots in the heat of action, was used to measure how people's brains processed TV shows and advertising.
When Sirkin unveiled the results during a presentation at the ad industry's annual Advertising Research Foundation conference in New York, it both dazzled and confused attendees; it also left them laughing. One of the snippets of the research Sirkin conducted showed a segment from NBC's popular Seinfeld series with an overlay of the second-by-second brain-wave activity of the viewers who were measured. The highest point in the segment was when one of the characters mentioned Hitler's name. Sirkin said she wasn't sure what to make of the spike, or whether it was a positive or negative factor, only that it got people's attention at a subconscious level that would require more study to truly understand.
A lot has happened since Sirkin's Hitler moment, including more breakthroughs in the field of neuroscience, as well as the development of better and more precise techniques for measuring how people think and feel when exposed to media stimuli. It has also spawned a new cottage industry of scientific researchers who have been adapting a variety of technologies in an effort to measure how people's brains respond to media and advertising - both consciously and unconsciously - in an effort to figure out better ways of communicating with them.
Along the way, the ARF has also been trying to influence the way Madison Avenue thinks, by bringing the field of neuroscience into the ad industry's mainstream. It began in 2009 with a keynote by Gerald Zaltman, a Harvard Business School professor, who took a sabbatical to study how neuroscience could be applied to marketing and wrote the book How Customers Think. Zaltman is also a partner in a research and consulting firm, Olson Zaltman Associates and has been one of the key evangelists behind the so-called "neuromarketing" movement, which has exploded to the point where some in the industry believe it could challenge and maybe even replace much of the traditional consumer research and testing methods used by Madison Avenue over the past century. It could also, says ARF president and CEO Bob Barocci, "change the way people think of advertising."
Barocci, who has been a big proponent of neuromarketing research, says that by going beyond understanding what people "say" about advertising and media, and learning how they actually "feel" and what they actually "do," could change the industry's understanding about how advertising works in a way that could finally lay the oft-cited Wanamaker observation to rest.
While that potentially could be a good thing, it also raises a lot of important issues, including the fact that few, if any, of Madison Avenue's experts truly understand the underlying science behind many of the new neuromarketing research techniques nearly well enough to compare it to their traditional, tried-and-true methods.
"As an industry researcher in social sciences, I have a pretty good understanding about whether a survey is done well and what the biases are in the underlying statistics," says Horst Stipp, who after 40 years as a top research executive at NBC, joined the ARF. "The problem with this is there is some underlying science that I am not an expert on, and you have to rely on a vendor for the accuracy and how well it is done."
Stipp says that over the years at NBC, he dabbled in neuroscience techniques and was always intrigued with their results, but wasn't always sure of what to do with them. In one of the more significant pieces of research NBC conducted recently, it worked with Innerscope Research to understand what effect fast-forwarding by digital-video-recorder users had on their ability to be influenced by advertising (see related story on page 48).
While those results were encouraging, Stipp says the lack of technical scientific knowledge behind neuromarketing research and the competing claims of new companies and methods, was creating confusion for advertisers and agencies. Consequently, he says, Madison Avenue's research community did what it does best: It conducted some research about the new research.
The initiative, which was spearheaded by the ARF, was dubbed the NeuroStandards Collaboration Project and included a group of academic researchers, with expertise in the methods being tested, to act as an expert panel. The panel recently concluded a review of eight major suppliers, utilizing a range of neurological and biometric methods, including eye-tracking, heart rate, galvanic skin response, facial-expression coding and even neurological diagnostic tools such as EEGs and fMRIs that measure brain waves or produce images of the brain. Interestingly, one of the biggest suppliers, Nielsen-backed NeuroFocus, declined to participate in the project but recently unveiled a new measurement technology that it claims represents a "medical-grade" breakthrough for measuring brain waves. The technology, which NeuroFocus calls Mynd, utilizes a lightweight cap that can unobtrusively measure the brain-wave activity of people who wear it.
NeuroFocus founder and CEO A.K. Pradeep says Mynd was developed in collaboration with the Tobii, which has been developing methods that would allow paralyzed people to control machines such as automated wheelchairs merely by thinking.
"You think of turning your wheelchair left and it goes left. You think of turning it right and it goes right," he says. Pradeep says the Mynd system also has wireless Bluetooth technology built into it so that it can interact directly with various media that people might be using while being tested, such as computers, smartphones or TVs. Ultimately, he says the Mynd system one day could be used by people to remotely control how they use media by simply thinking about it. Meanwhile, the advertising industry will be assessing the results of the first phase of the ARF's NeuroStandards Collaboration without NeuroFocus. The results of that phase, which were unveiled at the ARF's annual conference recently in New York, included a thorough review of the methods used by the eight companies participating, as well as an evaluation of results from a controlled test using their methods, to measure audience responses to several finished TV commercials from the sponsors of the Collaboration including Hershey's, American Express, Clorox, Colgate-Palmolive and General Motors.
The findings of the study were reviewed by the panel of experts and the sponsors organized by the ARF, which found the results to be promising, but inconclusive.
"Even though neuromarketing research has made remarkable progress during the last decade, both the underlying science and the application of the science to marketing are still developing, and there are a number of questions and concerns that surround the field," the initial report concluded.
Results of the specific commercial tests have not been released, but the report did identify some encouraging insights, especially the ability to "pinpoint" a viewer's response on a second-by-second basis. The problem, says the ARF's Stipp, may be in understanding why someone responded to a particular moment in an ad or a TV show and what influence a variety of other factors might have had, including the content surrounding or preceding it.
"You are able to tell that something was happening at the 13-second point in a commercial and that is extremely valuable," says Stipp, "even if you don't understand why it is happening."
Among other things, Stipp said the immediate application of that insight would test the copy of advertising or brand packaging to understand what triggers a response in a consumer, even if the marketer doesn't fully understand why.
That's an important breakthrough for marketers who have long sought to identify the "moment of truth," when a consumer decides on their brand versus a competitor's. Recently, Interpublic's Shopper Sciences division deployed an innovative new biometric method - a system that utilizes cameras installed on supermarket shelves - to read the facial expressions and heart rates of consumers deciding on which brands to buy. Shopper Sciences' founder John Ross says the software in the system, which was originally designed by MIT professors to help teach autistic children how to read emotions in other people based on their facial expressions, can tell marketers what customers are thinking when they are looking at their brands on a shelf, including whether they are frustrated, bored or confused.
Meanwhile, the ARF's Stipp says the initial phase of the NeuroStandards Collaboration has raised more questions about neuromarketing than it has answered and that the next stages will be to turn the findings into an easily accessible white paper, as well as a dedicated forum in the near future. Based on industry feedback, he says the ARF most likely will organize a new phase of research and an ongoing "expert review network" for marketers, agencies and media who want to assess the latest techniques and methods developed by neuroscientists.
As if the subject of neuromarketing research standards wasn't confusing enough, NeuroFocus pulled an 11th hour move that left many of Madison Avenue's top researchers with what might be described as cognitive dissonance-a term used to explain the state of unease that occurs when our brains are confronted with two conflicting ideas. At about the same time, it was unveiling its new Mynd system at the recent ARF conference, NeuroFocus issued its own competing "NeuroStandards." The move, coming after NeuroFocus declined to participate in the ARF's process, left many heads scratching over the timing of and reason for NeuroFocus' move.
Histrionics aside, ARF's Stipp says it will be a long time, if ever, before the industry codifies measurement standards around neuroscience methods, because new science, technologies and market conditions will continue to emerge.
"It's a moving target. You have the complexity of the science, but also the complexity of the marketplace, which is constantly changing," Stipp says, adding that for now, the most important output of the research is to give marketers and agencies the ability to demystify some of the technical aspects of neuroscience and not to simply rely on it because it is science.
"There are a lot of things science can tell us with absolute certainty. It can tell you if you have a tumor and it needs to be removed," he says. "But understanding how human brains work is much more complex than that. You can't just say, 'I trust it, because it's science.' It's important that people who use this research don't abandon a little bit of their normal cautious skepticism and due diligence."