Ford brand executives wanted to know whether a TV commercial that showed a bulldozer crushing an F-150 pickup would upset viewers.
So Ford asked its advertising agency, JWT, to study the question. Among other things, JWT hired scientists who reviewed the brain activity of test subjects who watched the spot.
The conclusion: The commercial made the viewers fearful. Their anxiety measured highest at the end of the commercial — a "beauty shot" that showed the truck at sunset. Since making viewers anxious clearly wasn't the commercial's intent, Ford pulled it.
The experiment reflects an emerging area of market research that calls on new thinking from neuroscience and social psychology. The research is designed to predict how consumers think a brand will make them feel, rather than what they believe about the brand.
Ford and other automakers are applying such research to their advertising.
Michael Bentley, a psychologist, is JWT's executive vice president of global planning on the Ford account. He says he initially wanted to know whether changing the music in the F-150 commercial would generate different emotions among viewers.
But no matter what music was tried, Bentley says, the commercial elicited anxiety. Viewers who took part in the research got a sense of what it would be like to sit in the truck in the commercial — perhaps too good a sense.
To perform the study, JWT called on a company called Added Value in North America.
Added Value's executive vice president, Mark Weeks, says his company's brand of research, Emotional Brand Connection, debunks conventional wisdom.
For example, Weeks says, Added Value tested an undisclosed product that the client thought appealed to consumers' sense of status. But the research found that consumers were motivated instead by excitement about buying the product. The client changed its advertising to reflect the different emphasis.
Some advertisers understand Emotional Brand Connection right away, Weeks says. "With other people, it takes forever."