24 October 2016
TV networks look to neuroscience and biometrics to understand what shows and commercials people like to watch. Photo:
TV networks look to neuroscience and biometrics to understand what shows and commercials people like to watch. Photo:

TV networks open labs to read viewers’ minds

Television networks are trying a new approach to understand what shows and commercials people like to watch: read their minds.

Comcast Corp’s NBCUniversal and Viacom Inc are opening labs where they will study TV viewers in mock living rooms filled with infrared cameras tracking their biometrics – such things as eye movements and facial reactions made while hooked up to skin sensors and heart monitors, Reuters reports.

Viacom’s lab, which is being built in New York, will include electroencephalograms (EEGs) to monitor peoples’ brain waves while watching television.

Ratings firm Nielsen Holdings, which just bought neuroscience firm Innerscope Research earlier this year, is adding facial coding and biometrics to its labs, which currently conduct eye tracking and perform EEGs.

Networks have tried for years to find out what viewers think, but their technology is still mostly based on surveys and asking watchers to turn dials about what they like and don’t.

The new biometric data avoids questions, tapping straight into physical response.

“The problem is that when you ask someone how they respond to things, they sometimes think about it or they overthink it,” said Alan Wurtzel, president of research and media development at NBCU. “This is the closest to what’s going on inside your brain.”

As more viewers fast-forward through ads, and advertisers increasingly shift their budgets away from TV in favor of digital ads, networks see neuroscience and biometrics as a way for them to target ads better and improve relations with advertisers.

The experience of The Ad Council, a New York-based organization that creates ad campaigns for non-profits and government agencies, shows how using biometrics could help boost response from viewers. It has worked with Nielsen Neuroscience to test some of its ads.

In testing one ad, for The Shelter Pet Project, which promotes the adoption of pets from local animal shelters, viewers were engaged by watching a mixed-breed dog playing with the screen and reaching out to viewers.

But the parts of viewers’ brains triggering memory weren’t firing when the message about contacting appeared on the screen, said Patty Goldman, research director with Ad Council.

So Ad Council tweaked the ad to add audio encouraging viewers to visit the site. While it’s not known how much the change affected the results of the ad, the Ad Council did have success with the entire campaign.

It saw average monthly visitors to the website increase to 174,000 from 74,000 within the first three months of the campaign.

NBCUniversal, which opened its lab in Orlando, Florida, in September, wants to be able to tell which scenes elicit the strongest emotional response from viewers, and then use those scenes in its promotional ads, said Wurtzel.

Viacom is examining different kinds of viewer focus and ultimately wants to find the best time for a commercial.

For example, if a scene elicits a response from expectant mothers it can plug in a diaper ad; if the scene makes people hungry, it’s time to run an ad for food.

Viacom, whose offerings include Nickelodeon and MTV, has been working to improve the ratings of many of its top networks, which have been in decline.

The concern is that the new process, which at US$30,000 to US$100,000 per study costs about twice as much as normal focus groups, may not improve sales.

“Just because their brain cells are lighting up during a commercial, doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to buy the product, they may simply find the commercial engaging,” said Beth Rockwood, senior vice president, market resources and advertising sales research at Discovery Communications, which is looking into possibly doing more with neuroscience research.

Hershey Co. has been using neuroscience and biometric research for several years, and still is unsure what conclusions it can draw regarding their effectiveness.

“I don’t think anyone is comfortable saying that this is going to translate into more sales,” said Andy Smith, director of consumer insights at Hershey.

He said he agrees that the research can win points with advertisers, a crucial advantage in TV’s war with the Internet.

“If I can get more growth by spending less, we benefit,” Smith said.

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