Major TV stations are using mind-reading technology to help them figure out what viewers want.
NBC Universal and Viacom have recently opened laboratories that look like simulated living rooms, where they hook people to encephalograms, skin sensors and heart monitors to help them asses their response to TV content.
The broadcasters say that unlike conventional question-based methods of gauging viewers’ opinions, with these cutting-edge technologies they can peek directly into the minds of the audience.
"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."
The TV networks hope neuroscience will help them better target ads, which would in turn reinforce their relationships with advertisers.
Ratings firm Nielsen Holdings and New York-based organisation The Ad Council conducted a series of tests examining viewers’ neural responses to ads. They found, for example, that viewers watching an ad about a project promoting the adoption of pets were engaged when watching a mixed-breed dog, but the parts of their brains responsible for creating memories failed to power up when a message about contacting the project appeared on the screen.
Consequently, the Ad Council tweaked the ad and included an audio message encouraging viewers to visit the projects’ website.
NBC Universal said they will use their lab in Orlando, Florida, to assess which scenes trigger the most intense emotional response.
Viacom is examining different kinds of viewer focus and ultimately wants to find the best time for a commercial, so that, 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.
However, some industry experts are sceptical, saying that the fact that a commercial is engaging doesn’t necessary mean viewers will run to buy the product.
"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, which has been experimenting with neuroscience and biometric research for several years.
Time Warner is one of the pioneers of neuroscience research in television. It runs a large centre in New York, where it can test up to 200 people, tracking their eye-movements, facial expressions, sweat and heart-rate.
When evaluating viewers’ reactions to a US Navy ad, the team found the users were the most engaged during scenes which involved a helicopter sound despite the fact that they looked up in this moment.
"The eye tracking showed that they looked back up, but the biometrics showed that they were engaged," said Carl Marci, chief neuroscientist at Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience. "Eye tracking is not an emotional measure, it's an attention measure and even when people focus on something, their brain may not be responding to it."
Based on this research, the company recommended advertisers to announce their brands and not just show them in their ads.