Crystal Ball Persuasion: Biometrics, Neuromarketing… Are Consumers Really Buying It?


It’s understandable that marketing folks would have branding on the brain. But do consumers? Or more to the point, are scientific methods of analyzing brain waves, eye movements, heart rate and other physical indicators a more accurate form of market research?[more]

Let’s first take a look at the Online Publishers Association new study, “Biometric Evaluation: Assessing the Effectiveness of the OPA Ad Unit.” According to the organization’s press release, OPA Ad Units include are those big (annoying) expanding ads that take over a webpage and the ones that scroll down a page with the reader, units which “are designed to provide a platform for marketers to deliver their brand experiences as opposed to encouraging consumers to click.”

The topline take away: 90% of participants “notice” (a loaded term: positively or negatively?) OPA Ad Units in the first 10 seconds and become “emotionally engaged” (again, could swing either way…) with the advertising, while 67% return after spending time elsewhere on the webpage.

For the study, OPA collaborated with Innerscope Research, Inc., described in the press release as “the leader in using biometrics to deliver emotion-based consumer insights.” Well then. What they’re trying to say is that Innerscope can hook people up to their system of heart monitors and eye-tracking devices to find out what they’re looking at and how much it gets the heart pumping and neurons firing.

In this case, they sat subjects in front of mocked-up websites for CNN, MSNBC and the New York Times populated with random OPA Ad Units from the likes of brand marketers including Microsoft Bing, Unilever, Cadillac, Mercedes-Benz, Westin Hotels and Cleveland Clinic.

Additional highlights from the OPA’s research (which, let the record show, has a vested interest in showing that its ad units are a hit with consumers) include:

•    96% of participants pay attention to OPA Ad Units while naturally surfing
•    73% of users who “fixated” on units in the first 10 seconds displayed a stronger emotional response to the advertising than to the rest of the webpage
•    On average it takes 0.6 seconds to “fixate”on an OPA Ad Unit
•    On average, participants “fixate” over 15 times on OPA Ad Units
•    40 percent of these “fixations” occur after the first 10 seconds of being on a webpage

OPA President Pam Horan is certainly excited: “The findings show that OPA Ad Units are not only drawing attention back to the advertising, but are also generating significant interest and therefore are a very effective platform for brand marketers to deliver messages.” If this study is to be believed, it could be a big step in expanding online advertising from a direct-response model to include the more generalized brand awareness campaigns that have heretofore remained focused on traditional print and broadcast platforms.

Still, we’re not convinced consumers are buying it. So it was interesting to read in the New York Times this past weekend about what’s going on with neuromarketing.

A. K. Pradeep, the founder and CEO of NeuroFocus, a neuromarketing firm based in Berkeley, Calif., tells the Times that if marketing pitches are to succeed, they need to reach the subconscious level of the brain, the place where consumers develop initial interest in products, inclinations to buy them and brand loyalty.

How do they determine all this? Neurofocus volunteers “wear a fabric cap that houses EEG sensors and an eye-tracking device while they look at a commercial, use a Web site or view a movie trailer. The dual devices enable researchers to connect the volunteers’ brain patterns with the exact video images or banner ads or logos they’re viewing.”

“By measuring brain waves, we are able to measure attention, emotion and memory,” says Pradeep (who the Times says holds a Ph.D. in engineering). “We basically compute the deep subconscious response to stimuli.” Add all those electrical patterns together, he says, and “you find it represents the whispers of the brain.”

The Times article doesn’t present any evidence that neuromarket research is a more accurate indicator of consumer engagement with brand marketers’ efforts than, say, traditional focus groups — it’s just one tool among many, but gaining interest because it’s science-based and more techie.

Indeed, it quotes Dr. Robert T. Knight, the chief science adviser at NeuroFocus, stating that neuromarketing may distinguish whether a person’s emotional response is positive or negative, but not whether the positive response is awe or amusement. “This is not a mind reader,” Dr. Knight says. “We can only measure whether you are paying attention.”

So NeuroFocus (which boasts Nielsen as an investor and created the painful ad above) and other bio-research firms like EmSense, Sands Research, MindLab International and NeuroSense using the “latest mind-mining techniques — EEGs, M.R.I.’s, eye-tracking — (or) older biometric methods that track skin, muscle or facial responses to products or ads” can’t, like most research, accurately predict what consumers really want.

But that still won’t stop companies like Google, CBS, Disney, Frito-Lay and A&E Television (or organizations like the OPA) from using neuromarketing to test consumer impressions.

As the Times points out, “Trying to tap into the consumer subconscious in the hope of moving more merch isn’t new. More than 50 years ago, Vance Packard, a journalist and social critic, wrote a seminal book called The Hidden Persuaders, which described how advertisers played on people’s unconscious desires in trying to influence them.”

Still, its scientific trappings and digital gee-whizzery has managed to “emotionally engage” an influential audience with deep pockets — brand marketers.