Traditional methods of evaluating a pilot or movie trailer have relied on focus groups expressing opinions by chatting, filling out questionnaires, pushing buttons or adjusting dials. But that’s all so 20th century.
Today, the options include a few of the space-age variety, like determining not just what people say they think, but how they subconsciously feel.
Innerscope Research was birthed just three years ago, but the company has already found various entertainment and advertising clients for its biometric research, which employs eye-tracking technology as well as EKG monitors to gauge subconscious response along four key criteria: heart rate, breathing, moisture levels (or sweat) and movement.
“It’s very hard for people to accurately reflect their internal world,” says Innerscope CEO Carl Marci, noting that 75% of brain processing “is below conscious awareness.”
A neuroscientist by training, Marci co-founded the Boston-based company with Brian Levine in 2006. Yet in that short time they have notched a number of entertainment clients looking to augment traditional research, including Fox, NBC and Discovery, along with a growing number of advertisers.
According to Marci, self-reporting is limited — good at measuring extremes, but not so great in the middle. Biometrics thus provides a diagnostic tool, able to pinpoint physical reactions to specific moments that the viewer might not even realize.
Eager to see how this worked, I squeezed into the very slimming test vest at the Warner Bros. Media Lab, a state-of-the-art facility that the studio launched in 2008. The process included connecting three EKG nodes to my bare torso and a device to my hand to identify sweat levels. (The aforementioned nodes are good for testing, by the way, but bad for chest hair.)
As I watched programming on a computer screen, the researchers could monitor my reactions — including eye movement — in real time from an adjoining room. Moreover, this approach lets them test not just TV but online, print and radio, which is part of a multiplatform study that Innerscope is currently mounting.
The readout looked like a lot of squiggly lines to me, but Marci could see spikes that came at specific moments within the ads and programming snippets (including the “Dexter” trailer) viewed. Over the course of a longer screening — say, a pilot — the vest would also capture whether the test subject became fidgety, or when their gaze wandered.
Inasmuch as producers are still leery about the idea of bored tourists in Las Vegas deciding the fate of their pilots, Warner Bros. stressed that they were analyzing areas such as product integration and advertising interaction within programs, not specific beats in the shows themselves. Marci, however, noted that others have employed Innerscope’s testing to gather such data, which depending on the genre can provide “very specific examples and directions on how to change it.”
“It’s a fine line you walk when you start to bring new technologies and new methods into the creative process,” says Bruce K. Rosenblum, Warner Bros.’ exec VP of media research. “The purpose of what we’re trying to do is create a toolbox.”
Innerscope’s findings have included the revelation that people exhibit emotional responses as they fast-forward through commercial pods, meaning that ads are still registering to those viewing via TiVo or another digital video recorder. The company can also pinpoint whether a movie trailer, say, is generating the sort of “emotional engagement” that marketers hope to achieve.
As “Total Recall”-ish as this might sound, the explosion of new avenues for consuming media has placed the need for accurate ratings — and a more granular grasp of audience responses — among the more pressing issues facing the industry. Those rapidly shifting dynamics require that research explore more elaborate (and potentially more intrusive) approaches in an effort to keep pace.
“This allows our clients to see what their audience is seeing and feeling, not what they say they’re seeing and feeling,” Marci explains.
Marci did note that my biometric chart didn’t reveal the kind of wide fluctuations seen in some test subjects, suggesting a possible numbing based on the amount of programming that I regularly view.
Even so, after all these years of trying to externalize and articulate feelings about watching television, it’s nice to know that something — hell, anything — can still rock my “internal world.”