Sep 23 • 5 min read

As innovative technology captures increasingly intricate bodily responses to advertisements, Fox researchers collaborate with industry leaders on how to harness the influx of new data.

The most successful advertisements can quite literally get beneath a viewer’s skin. Increasingly, researchers are using advanced technology to measure the neurophysiological responses that people have while viewing their advertisements. 

This technology holds great promise to improve marketing. However, due to a lack of research comparing how these neurophysiological responses differ according to the form of advertisement, companies may not be making best use of their measurements. 

In order to advance the applicability of these measurements, Vinod Venkatraman, associate professor of marketing at the Fox School, and Vaidya Viswanathan, a current PhD student, collaborated with Davide Baldo and Rich Timpone of the global marketing research and consulting firm Ipsos. Their research, published in Psychology & Marketing, asks how consistently neurophysiological measurements perform across a variety of stimuli like emotional images, videos, TV advertisements and gambles.

To do this, they measured the participants’ heart rate, sweat level and brain activity as they were exposed to these different stimuli. They then compared their reactions to arousal (the strength of an emotional response) and valence (whether the emotions are positive or negative).

“Do the technologies work consistently well when you are measuring the emotional experiences of people looking at a picture, versus a movie, versus an advertisement?” asks Venkatraman.

They find that sweating consistently measures arousal while heart rate tracks valence across different stimulus types. Heart rate was also a reliable predictor of memory—when participants’ heart rate slowed down sufficiently during exposure to stimuli, they were more likely to recognize that stimulus after a delay. 

The results were not so simple for brain activity. Based on electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings, brain activity reliably indicated valence for gambles, but not for images and videos. Venkatraman suspects the EEG response here may be capturing something more nuanced than positive and negative emotions.

“This particular measure may be associated with a motivational approach or avoidance behavior. Some emotional stimuli like anger may trigger approach-related behavior, leading to differences in findings.”

In other words, the EEG may pick up on emotions like anger that are both negative and engaging, creating inconsistency in the measurements. This explains why EEG was consistent for a stimulus like gambling, where the emotional outcomes are simple (you either win or lose).

“Another critical question is how well these measures generalize to preferences outside the current set of participants?” asks Venkatraman. “For example, if some advertisements lead to systematic differences in heart rate and brain activity within the participants in the study, does it say something about the effectiveness of these advertisements in the marketplace?”

Their findings suggest that researchers can use the heart rate of the viewer to predict whether an advertisement promotes long-term brand recognition, whereas they can use EEG signals to predict whether the advertisement increases the likelihood that the viewer will purchase the product after viewing it. Combining these complementary measures can improve a marketer’s ability to predict the effectiveness of an advertisement.

“This is a unique study which showed that the physiological processes underlying each [marketing component] are actually different,” says Timpone, managing director of the global science organization at Ipsos.

Using this information, marketers can strategically measure responses that suit their company’s goals. For example, consider a company making an advertisement to be aired during the Super Bowl.

“Very rarely does a Super Bowl ad aim to make somebody go and purchase something during the Super Bowl,” says Venkatraman. “Oftentimes the goal of those ads is to launch a new product line or improve brand  recognition.”

Consequently, when evaluating how to market their products during the Super Bowl, a company might place greater emphasis on advertisements that elevate the heart rate of viewers. While they may not necessarily inspire viewers to buy the product during the Super Bowl, they may be effective at getting viewers to recognize the brand when they head to the supermarket or department store at a later time.

Beyond improving the impact of their advertisements, these findings can also help marketers reduce the cost of their efforts by measuring only the indicator that applies to their goals. It would be time intensive and expensive to include all types of neurophysiological measures for each study.

Such promising results would not have been possible without collaboration between the Fox School and Ipsos. The partnership, announced earlier this year, began when Venkatraman spent a year working at Ipsos during his sabbatical in 2019. Given his interest in neurophysiological research methods, he was interested in bridging the gap between academic findings and industry applications.

“I was trying to identify, ‘What can we do to reduce the gap between the two?’” says Venkatraman about his motivation for working at Ipsos. “This cannot happen separately in academia, this cannot happen separately in industry. It needs these entities to come together to be successful.”

Venkatraman and Viswanathan helped with vital aspects of the research process, such as what stimuli to include, how to conduct measurements and survey design. Meanwhile, Ipsos brought advertisements they have tested on clients in prior studies and experienced researchers that did the advanced statistical analysis.

Timpone says, “[The partnership] provides us with not just theoretically interesting, but practical real-world cases.”

The Fox School is uniquely positioned to advance this research as one of the few universities in the country equipped with the appropriate technology. The school’s Center for Applied Research in Decision Making (CARD) uses tools like surveys, eye tracking, facial coding, facial electromyography, skin conductance, heart rate, EEG and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to address real-world business problems in marketing, advertising and more. 

The findings in this research are a start, but there remain many questions to be answered before companies can maximize the potential of these technologies. For starters, this study looked at frontal alpha asymmetry, a particular subcategory of EEG scan that is common in market research. Future studies might explore different aspects of the brain.

In addition, companies need to see the data is replicable to confirm the findings are valid and feel confident in the resulting interpretations. The ultimate goal is that they will not have to validate the measures for every study. More testing is the best way to ensure replicability.

“The constraint is always the number of stimuli we are testing,” says Venkatraman. “For us to move forward as a field in the future, we will scale these studies to hundreds of ads.”

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