The latest research in advertising is testing if biometrics and neuroscience can improve advertising effectiveness. Is this the next big investment for business, or is the perfect ad really just an impossible quest?
Dachshunds dressed as hot dogs. A chorus of singing babies. A Willem Dafoe ‘Marilyn’, in that scene. They may sound abstract, but each is part of impeccably orchestrated advertisement, that has caught and held the attention of both audiences and industry experts alike. Aired at this year’s Super Bowl, these ads have each hoped to achieve that which is reserved for the select few: advertising success.
Success, however, is rare. To create ads that attract and hold attention, that tug at our emotions, and that consumers remember and want to watch again and again, is an advertiser’s dream. But despite the best efforts of the advertising agencies that create the ads, and the research companies that test the ads before they are launched, few ads achieve ‘perfection’. Predicting which ads are actually going to sell has remained elusive.
It is, however, an exciting time in the world of advertising. Much has been discovered about how our brains work—how we build, maintain and retrieve memories, what we pay attention to, and the role of emotions in decision-making.
Furthermore, a new suite of tools developed by brain and cognitive psychology scientists are enabling advertising researchers to measure our arousal, attention, memories and emotional responses to advertising. And this all without asking questions, but by measuring bodily responses like muscle movements or the level of sweat.
But while there is a plethora of different tools and analysis approaches, there is little robust knowledge of how valid they are in the marketing domain. The ability to measure how human bodies respond to an ad is not enough if we can’t use that knowledge to separate the good and the bad ads, in terms of how they influence actual behaviour (or ‘sell’). We can have exciting new tools, in the best labs, but unless we know which tools and analysis to use for which questions, our results will not translate into the industry making better ads.
To improve advertising success—for advertisers, governments, and the general public who have to watch these ads—the Mars Marketing Lab at UniSA’s Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science, has conducted what is probably the largest ever investigation into the potential of biometrics and other psychophysiological measures in advertising effectiveness, measured by in-market sales.
Working with global partners—Mars Inc. (supplying over a hundred of their ads from around the world, plus validation data of in-market sales effectiveness), US-based MediaScience Labs (supplying two of the world’s best equipped labs), and UniSA’s own Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory (using advanced measures such as electroencephalography) —the research will involve a series of studies to assess multiple measures that have been developed in medicine and neuroscience to quantify emotion and attention responses in the body and the brain.
The ads supplied by Mars Inc. have gold-standard measures of their in-market success. These have undergone further testing through the MediaScience Labs to measure biometrics, such as heart rate (an indicator of attention), facial expression (a good indicator of emotions such as joy), and skin conductance (a measure of arousal).
The new measures promise to reveal the intensity of attentional and emotional responses without, or in spite of, what people say in the traditional questionnaires. Theory suggests that no single method, in isolation, is likely to provide a trustworthy answer, which is why this project deploys a mixed-methods approach, whereby each measure is expected to deliver the insight for which it is best suited.
Over the long term, this ‘technology-agnostic’ project will better understand the journey from the creative content, to how it attracts attention and emotion during first and subsequent viewing, and ultimately, how it nudges sales.
So far, the team has found that different creative strategies require different assessment tools (for example, an ad that attempts continuous humour requires a different measure to an ad that uses a ‘set-up and payoff’ strategy).
And the world is taking note. This year, the research was presented at Rethink!, the leading US conference for advertisers, where it was voted in the ‘Top 10’ research submissions. Two of the team (Steven Bellman and Duane Varan) were also awarded best paper from the Journal of Advertising Research for other work in the field.
There are still many questions relating to how advertising grabs attention, builds memories or moves our emotions consistently.
Finding a formula for the perfect ad may still be an impossible quest, but what this research can do in the next few years is provide insights into which of these new measures (or combinations of measures) are most promising for measuring attention and emotion; what combinations help advertisers to know that the ad achieved an objective (such as, made people laugh at scale); and systematic comparisons of how and what the new measures capture, compared to traditional measures and in-market responses.
Blending a range of innovations through key partnerships, the project will literally take advertising research to a new level of understanding of how advertising works.
The results are expected to allow advertisers to more consistently produce great ads, as well as culling ads that would otherwise tick all the boxes on questionnaires, but are simply boring, or lack the ‘chemistry’ that leads viewers to watch again and again. Watch this space.