Neuroscience meets Pearl & Dean

Some of us of a certain age will forever equate a night at the cinema with the rather 70s melodramatic riff that heralded the start of the between-movies (yes, we always had two features in those days!) commercials distributed and packaged by Pearl and Dean, the greatest name in movie advertising since 1953.

It was as much a part of going the the cinema as the childish bang of stamped-on Kia-ora orange cartons or hurling popcorn at the audience members seated down in the stalls (under the cover of darkness, obviously!).  The company is still around, of course, and that digitally-remastered theme evokes a sense of nostalgia every time I hear it – even though there is now often only one film to watch, the ticket prices make a premier league football game seem better value, you can no longer smoke, and you need a massive mortgage to buy popcorn for two.  There’s just something about the atmosphere in a darkened cinema, though, that evokes a whole series of emotional responses across the audience, don’t you think?

Cinema-going is a shared emotional experience.  Audiences laugh together, cry together, jump out of their skins together, and generally respond in very similar ways (not universally of course, while everyone is crying at the end of a good weepy, I’m often the one snoring!).  This apparent emotional contagion is something interesting to study in it’s own right, but it may indirectly also hold a clue as to a better way of conducting neuromarketing research and, crucially, what measures might more accurately predict the emotional responses of consumers.

A recent study by Barnett and Cerf set out to explore the neuroscience behind box office success.  Specifically, they showed some 58 movie-goers a series of 13 trailers for new theatrical releases, each participant being wired with portable EEG equipment in order to accurately measure activity levels in the brain.  The aim of the study was quite simple: to identify particular neurological responses to a trailer that would predict box office sales for the movie itself.  Typical piece of neuromarketing research in many respects, except the really novel thing about this study was the actual metric used by Barnett and Cerf.

Rather than just looking for specific patterns of neural activity, the researchers looked for simultaneous matches in activity across the 58 audience members; something neuroscientists refer to as cross-brain correlations (CBCs).  Put another way, they were looking for trailers that produced very very similar patterns in brain activity in the audience members all at the same time. The results were really good, even controlling for other possible physiological and psychological causes of the CBCs.  The greater the degree of CBC across the audience watching a trailer, the higher the box office sales for the movie on its release.  Pretty impressive!  The authors also went on to propose a series of content analysis techniques that could be used to identify the particular aspects of the trailer content most likely to generate a strong CBC – something that could, theoretically at least, be used to actual craft a box office success from scratch.

Personally, I think this is potentially of more value to Pearl and Dean than it is to a Sony Pictures or a Disney.  We normally conduct neuromarketing studies on an individual basis, showing a series of consumers advertising stimuli and looking to identify a particular stimulus (or aspect of it) that produces an already-identified desired neurological response.  But this study by Barnett and Cerf – our very own Pearl and Dean of neuroscience, of you like – suggests that we should actually be conducting this research on a series of consumers in parallel and seeking to measure common neurological responses via CBCs.  In other words, the more an ad evokes a CBS across the audience, the greater the sales of the advertised product/service we would expect.

I like this idea!  I love movies, I love the cinema, and this is a context in which a surprisingly well-controlled experiment could actually be conducted.  After all, in a cinema, we can be sure that the audience watching our commercials is experiencing the same levels of lighting, ambient temperature, volume, and so on.

An interesting and exciting prospect – wonder if I could persuade a friendly advertising agency and cinema chain to sponsor this experiment?  (hint, hint!)   In the meantime, if you’ve no idea what I’m talking about when it comes to Pear and Dean‘s, do please enjoy that wonderfully iconic (if rather naff!) music for yourselves.

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