Did you like that car ad?
Sometimes, the best answers to that question aren’t spoken. Instead, they’re lying beneath the surface within a person’s psyche.
Now, auto advertisers, who drop billions each year on TV ads, can tap into a person’s subconscious to find out if commercials are resonating emotionally.
Triggering a strong emotional reaction is crucial for advertisers because it activates the brain’s memory centers and could be the gateway to a sale.
“There’s no question there is a connection between high levels of emotional engagement with advertising communication and ultimate behaviors like sales,” said Dr. Carl Marci, co-founder and chief science officer for Innerscope Research, a consumer neuroscience firm. “It’s not a one-to-one relationship, but on balance, it’s a very strong and positive correlation.”
Automakers and ad agencies turn to consumer neuroscience researchers such as Innerscope to dive into the minds of potential buyers. Nielsen, known for its TV ratings data, is another player in a growing consumer neuroscience world that Marci says has started to take off in the last five years.
Marci defines the practice as the application of neuroscience to marketing and media research. Consumer neuroscience firms use tools from health care, biotechnology or academic research to access the brain’s “nonconscious” processing.
While delving into these nonconscious zones during an October examination, Innerscope said that Buick’s heavily run “Hmm” spot generated some of the highest levels of emotional engagement it has ever recorded. The spot shows a host of confused people who refuse to believe that they’re looking at Buicks.
The firm measured the “biometric signals” such as heart rate and breathing patterns of 40 people to gauge the ad’s effectiveness. Marci said the spot crossed generations and was well-branded, with 10 mentions of “Buick” within 30 seconds.
Innerscope wasn’t paid by Buick for the research.
Kathleen Kennedy, research labs director for the University of Akron’s Suarez Applied Marketing Research Laboratories, wrote in an email, “Our research shows that in making auto buying decisions, consumers are influenced by deep emotional and sensory responses they are not aware of and can’t articulate.
“So traditional methods of product and message testing in the automotive sector may provide incomplete, misleading, and sometimes just plain wrong answers.”
One drawback of consumer neuroscience, Kennedy wrote, is that it can be a larger investment in time and money than traditional techniques such as online surveys.
The Suarez laboratories, established in 2008, develop techniques for marketing research.
Innerscope uses a series of tools to understand why ads resonate — or don’t — including:
- Eye-tracking: Tracking visual attention to see where people are looking on a TV ad, print ad, Web page or a car.
- Facial coding: Examining the expressions people make.
- EEG, or electroencephalograph: Measuring brain waves, which tracks conscious mental activities such as thinking, understanding, learning and remembering.
Marci said all of these tools tap into something about the consumer without asking questions or interrupting viewing.
Emotional connections, according to Innerscope, simultaneously activate areas of the brain connected to memory and decision-making.
High emotional engagement elicits increased activity in parts of the brain that control emotional relevance, sensory integration, memory formation and decision-making.
Before consumer neuroscience, most ad research relied on asking people questions directly. This was problematic because of biases that people harbor, Marci says.
For example, the “pleasing” bias arises when someone says whatever the researcher wants to hear. With social biases, people say what they think they’re supposed to say rather than how they actually feel. Then there are recall biases in which people don’t remember something accurately, so they fill in the gaps by making things up.
But now researchers can “go deeper and get a look inside” the “hearts and minds” of consumers, Marci said. Innerscope still asks questions, but they’re integrated into a more refined process than in the past.
“The big aha over the last 50 years, certainly the last 20 years of neuroscience in general, is that a whole lot of brain processing is happening without our awareness,” Marci said. “The promise of consumer neuroscience is to bring some of the tools and technologies from other disciplines to consumer questions to get a more complete picture.”
Much of Innerscope’s work with the auto industry falls into three categories:
1. TV ad testing, including pretesting before an ad’s release.
2. Best practices exercises after a commercial’s release, in which companies find out how well the spot worked.
3. Car clinics in which vehicles are evaluated before release.