How Neuroimaging Can Save the Entertainment Industry Millions of DollarsRelevant topics Research, Archive
Wow. Just wow.
Let me share two experiments that have changed my view on the power of brain imaging forever.
Can your brain predict who will be the next Lady Gaga?
The story starts in the research lab of Gregory Berns, a notable neuroscientist at Emory University. One day, Berns was conducting a typical fMRI study into consumer preferences. He wanted to find out how social proof information affected music preferences. Hardly a groundbreaking study – at first sight. As expected, music that was labeled to be popular among peers indeed increased liking and sparked up brain regions such as the caudate nucleus, insula and ACC.
Think forward a few months later.
While listening to the radio, Berns suddenly realized that some songs that were unknown at the time of his previous study had made their way to the top of the charts. What if there was some neural pattern that actually predicted which songs would become a hit and which would soon be forgotten? Excited, he dusted of his massive stack of neuroimaging data and self-reported liking scores, which he then compared to real world music charts.
The outcome of his reexamination was nothing short of amazing.
Neuroimaging scans predicted with surprising accuracy which songs would soon become hits. More specifically, future sing-alongs caused a spike in the nucleus accumbens (NAcc). (For the more statistically attentive among us; the NAcc showed a moderate correlation to real world sales of 0.32). Interestingly: self-reported liking ratings had no predictive power whatsoever. Again, the brain beats the mouth in marketing research.
Isn’t it amazing that brain scans from just a handful of individuals are able to predict one of the most seemingly erratic cultural phenomena: music charts?
From Billboard Charts to the Box Office
The story of neuroimaging in prediction of entertainment success reached a new chapter last month. If our brains reveal which unknown songs of today will be smash hits tomorrow, then what about movies?
Two marketing researchers from the Rotterdam School of Management investigated whether brain scans would be able to predict movie success in the box office. They devised a particularly enjoyable experiment. Participants were hooked on EEG equipment and kicked back and relaxed, while watching movie trailers. Afterwards, the participants were allowed to select three movies that they were allowed to take home for free. The researchers compared self-reports and brain activity on the one hand with individual choice and box office success on the other.
Something particularly interesting was at work here. On the level of individual choice, both EEG and self-reported preferences predicted film choice quite well. But when we shift to the population level (e.g. actual box office results), self-reported preferences seize to be of predictive value and EEG takes the cake. In other words: while explicitly asking someone which trailers she likes may predict future film choice of this particular person, the sum of many people fails to predict whether the movie will attract crowds of moviegoers. And neuroimaging does just that: predicting global market success.
More specifically, the EEG showed that individual choice and box office success correlate with different types of brain activity. Whereas individual choice is predicted best by high frontocentral beta activity, the choice of the general population is predicted by frontal gamma activity.
What does a market researcher stand to do?
These two experiments aren’t the first to tear loose the underpinnings of classic explicit market research. They paint a sober picture of the future of surveys, interviews and focus groups. The problem isn’t only that people often don’t know what they like as an individual – because even if they do, the data only weakly predicts global marketplace success. The studies stress the superior predictive power of implicit research such as neuroimaging, biometrics and implicit association methods.
While the neuromarketing toolbox is often regarded as limited to major brands, this is hardly the case nowadays. Granted, fMRI still carries a 6-figure price tag, but virtually all other methods are accessible below $10.000. As the cinema-study shows, a more affordable EEG is able to capture valuable predictive data as well, albeit in a less spatially precise form than its fMRI brother. And as the brain continues to be disentangled further, neuroimaging grows more practical and reliable.
The Neuromarketing toolbox is open to anyone. There’s no reason not to use it but ignorance.