To predict a large population's likely response to something -- a product, politician or policy -- political consultants, marketing gurus and advertising execs have long favored the focus group. Ask a small segment of the target audience what it thinks about something, the formula goes. Tweak accordingly, and unleash on the public.
But what if a handful of subjects, a dozen or so electroencephalograms and a few hundred yards of electrical wiring could do a better job of identifying a potential hit (or winnowing out a rotten egg)? A new study finds that listening to the average brain-wave activity of a small group of subjects produces a more accurate prediction of a large population's likely embrace of something than does asking the same few subjects what they think.
In the latest research, the 2010 series premiere of the AMC show "The Walking Dead" (shown after its airing to youthful subjects who'd not seen it) provided the experimental stimulus. The larger public's actual judgment on the show's curtain-raiser was gleaned not only by its Nielsen ratings but by a minute-to-minute tally of Twitter postings during the broadcast making reference to the show and its contents.
The researchers who conducted the study at New York University's department of biomedical engineering then explored whether the collective brain activity patterns of a small group of subjects would predict a larger population's responses to Super Bowl advertisements from 2012 and 2013. Their report was published this week in the journal Nature Communications.
Asking subjects' opinions was of little value in predicting a hit or a flop. In addition to measuring their brain activity and devising a single measure of inter-subject synchrony, researchers asked subjects to rate the appeal of, or their level of engagement in, these televised offerings. The averaged ratings that subjects gave were a poor prediction of whether the viewing nation would stay engaged in and remember "The Walking Dead" or the Super Bowl ads.
In fact, the answers that subjects gave often didn't fit with the collective brain wave patterns researchers observed and measured. In the case of some Super Bowl ads, the subjects' oral assessments suggested they were left cold by the televised stimulus they had just seen, while an average measure of their brain-wave patterns showed they had watched with keen interest. In other cases, subjects reported high engagement, on average, with an ad they were seeing. But the collective measure of their brain activation patterns suggested they were unmoved by the content. (continued...)
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