The largest market research firm in the US opened a $1 million lab in the heart of downtown Cincinnati that uses neuroscience to determine what is or isn't working in advertising

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Image: Global Footprint – Nielsen Neuroscience Lab Locations

New York-based Nielsen on Nov. 29 opened its neuroscience lab in downtown Cincinnati, as the fifth such lab for the company in the United States and its 16th worldwide.

Nielsen president of Consumer Neuroscience Joseph Willke explained that the field of market research has been shifting over the last 30 years, and while 95 percent of it is still done via surveys and focus groups, the practice of using neuroscience is growing rapidly.

“We think of ourselves as rational and linear, but research shows emotion has a much bigger impact, the subconscious has a much bigger impact,” he said. For example, Nielsen knows the nose isn’t working in that fragrance ad.

The neuroscience lab hooks up participants to an electroencephalogram (EEG) with electrodes attached to a skullcap covering their heads. That measures brainwaves and can see what part of the brain is being impacted second by second while an ad is playing. It doesn’t know what emotion is being triggered, but it can know whether a viewer is being drawn in or pushed back. Eye tracking can tell what consumers are drawn to during any particular segment of an ad, and facial coding can tell whether they’re displaying any kind of emotion.

That all adds up to a portrait of what is and isn’t working in an ad that’s deeper than what viewers might report in a survey. In the nose example, a national corporation – Willke didn’t say which – ran an ad for an air freshener. Surveys could tell that the ad wasn’t working but not why. Nielsen ran the ad through its neuroscience lab. At three points during the ad, the camera zoomed onto a disembodied nose sniffing in to emphasize smell. During all three instances, Nielsen’s metrics tanked. Nielsen took that to the agency, who said it wasn’t originally in there, but the brand manager said the ad didn’t emphasize scent enough. Well, it wasn’t working.

A different segment of the same ad had two men portaging a canoe. Again, the metrics tanked at that point. Eye tracking showed that for some reason – maybe the way the ad was cut – the camera caused most viewers’ eyes to focus on one of the man’s armpits right as the tagline, “so fresh you can taste it” was spoken. “If you were doing a survey or focus group, nobody would be able to tell you ‘at second nine I was looking at the guy’s armpit and the ad said “taste” and I was grossed out.’ You don’t get this level of granularity,” Willke said.

The lab was put in Cincinnati in part because Nielsen already has a large staff here to service it, including one of its 20 neuroscientists. It also doesn’t hurt to be near corporate giants and large advertisers like Procter&Gamble, Kroger and Macy’s.

The lab can handle 5,000 to 7,000 participants annually and is staffed by a team of 19. Nielsen is the second-largest market research firm in Cincinnati with 600 local employees, according to Courier research.