To test TV ads, watch 16 people’s brainwaves

The study was 90 percent accurate when comparing preferences for Super Bowl ads. For example, researchers saw very similar brainwaves from participants during a 2012 Budweiser commercial with a beer-fetching dog. The general public voted the ad as their second favorite that year. (Credit: Al Ibrahim/Flickr)

By analyzing the brainwaves of 16 people as they watched mainstream television, researchers were able to accurately predict the preferences of large TV audiences, up to 90 percent in the case of Super Bowl commercials.

“Alternative methods such as self-reports are fraught with problems as people conform their responses to their own values and expectations,” says Jacek Dmochowski, lead author of the paper and a postdoctoral fellow at City College of New York (CCNY) when the study was under way.

However, brain signals measured using electroencephalography (EEG) can, in principle, alleviate this shortcoming by providing immediate physiological responses immune to such self-biasing.

“Our findings show that these immediate responses are in fact closely tied to the subsequent behavior of the general population,” he adds. The findings appear in Nature Communications.

Lucas Parra, professor of biomedical engineering at CCNY and the paper’s senior author explains that, “when two people watch a movie, their brains respond similarly—but only if the video is engaging. Popular shows and commercials draw our attention and make our brainwaves very reliable; the audience is always ‘in-sync.'”

Brainwaves and tweets

In the study, participants watched scenes from “The Walking Dead” TV show and several commercials from the 2012 and 2013 Super Bowls. EEG electrodes on their heads captured brain activity.


The reliability of the recorded neural activity was then compared to audience reactions in the general population using publicly available social media data provided by the Harmony Institute and ratings from USA Today’s Super Bowl Ad Meter.

“Brain activity among our participants watching ‘The Walking Dead’ predicted 40 percent of the associated Twitter traffic,” says Parra. “When brainwaves were in agreement, the number of tweets tended to increase.” Brainwaves also predicted 60 percent of the Nielsen ratings that measure the size of a TV audience.

The study was even more accurate (90 percent) when comparing preferences for Super Bowl ads. For instance, researchers saw very similar brainwaves from their participants as they watched a 2012 Budweiser commercial that featured a beer-fetching dog.

The general public voted the ad as their second favorite that year. The study found little agreement in the brain activity among participants when watching a GoDaddy commercial featuring a kissing couple. It was among the worst rated ads in 2012.

How the brain responds

The CCNY researchers collaborated with Matthew Bezdek and Eric Schumacher from Georgia Tech to identify which brain regions are involved and explain the underlying mechanisms.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), they found evidence that brainwaves for engaging ads could be driven by activity in visual, auditory, and attention brain areas.

“Interesting ads may draw our attention and cause deeper sensory processing of the content,” says Bezdek, a postdoctoral researcher at Georgia Tech’s School of Psychology.

Apart from applications to marketing and film, Parra is investigating whether this measure of attentional draw can be used to diagnose neurological disorders such as attention deficit disorder or mild cognitive decline.

Another potential application is to predict the effectiveness of online educational videos by measuring how engaging they are.

Source: Georgia Tech