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Marketing reporter Susan Krashinsky watches an ad while a headset with a sensor positioned over her left frontal lobe tracks her brainwave activity through electroencephalography (EEG). Toronto-based research firm Brainsights tests people's responses to ads by measuring specific mental states: attention, personal connection, and encoding to memory.The Globe and Mail

My brain loves Steve Buscemi.

I am watching the Super Bowl ad for Snickers while a headset with a sensor positioned over my left frontal lobe tracks my brainwave activity through electroencephalography (EEG). Unbeknownst to me, there is a spike in activity on a number of different waves when Mr. Buscemi appears onscreen, delivering the punchline of the ad.

The commotion continues with a beauty shot of chocolate (obviously).

The Toronto-based research firm Brainsights is giving me a sneak peek at a study they will conduct next week at the digital marketing conference Dx3. The aim is to measure a few hundred participants to judge the difference in responses between American Super Bowl ads and Canadian ones.

It's a hot topic, since just before this year's Super Bowl, Canada's federal broadcast regulator announced that, as of 2017, it will no longer allow the Canadian signal to overtake American channels, and their flashy ads, during the big game. The decision now faces a court challenge from BCE Inc.

The American ads have such big budgets, and are so flashy, that this study doesn't seem like a fair fight. But the researchers want to look beyond the flash, to see what really resonates with Canadian viewers. For example, an ad for PC Financial registers with my brainwaves upon the mention of free food. (I am beginning to see a theme.)

"Specific mental states have been associated with those brainwaves," said Brainsights co-founder Kevin Keane. "The specific mental states that we track are attention, [personal] connection, and encoding [to memory]. …You can see how that might be of interest to marketers."

In the case of a Carl's Jr. ad, for example, my brain's attention is triggered by overtly sexual content (a beautiful woman who appears naked walking through a public market). But my connection levels are low. I choose to believe this is because my brain is as unimpressed with the objectification of women for cheap commercial purposes as I am.

(See Susan's full results in a graphic.)

Of course, my particular mental response to these ads is of little value; and for privacy reasons, the company would never share a single person's scans with clients. Instead, it measures scans from groups of people to see the most common spikes in activity.

Next week's study will test something that is fundamental to the Canadian advertising industry: the idea that this market is distinct, and requires advertising tailored to consumers here. Mr. Keane argues that research can help multinational companies make more informed decisions about when that investment is needed, and when global work will do the trick.

The idea of "neuromarketing" research has been around for some time. One research firm, Mindlab International, was founded in the U.K. in 1988. However, it is only in the past five to 10 years that the idea has begun to catch on among marketers.

While the technology is not new – EEG with the human brain was developed in the 1920s – until recently it was not accessible or affordable enough for widespread consumer research uses. Some EEG scans require electrodes placed around the scalp and sometimes on the face: but as wearable tech has become more ubiquitous, the devices have progressed. Companies such as California-based Emotiv and NeuroSky (which Brainsights uses) make light plastic headsets that do the job.

"Like any other part of the industry, everyone is going through a disruption as a result of new technology. Research is no different," Mr. Keane said. "... With consumer neuroscience, back in the day, it was within the budget of the Unilevers, the Procter & Gambles, the Coca-Colas of the world. Now, it's different."

For research purposes, a minimally-invasive headset is ideal. People are more likely to consent to that kind of testing, and researchers can more easily mimic a natural environment, such as sitting on a couch watching an ad.

That's much different from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which tracks blood flow in the brain and can give a deeper picture of neural activity. But it is still expensive, and invasive, since participants actually need to lie still in a tube to be scanned. Brainsights has partnered with an fMRI provider, but Mr. Keane anticipates no more than a couple of very big-budget marketers would even consider it in the near future.

Marketers have always been under pressure to demonstrate the effectiveness of their investments. Focus groups are useful, but they are just one part of the research picture, since people's self-reporting of their behaviours and preferences can be unreliable.

Companies and their research agencies have also used "biometric" measures such as tracking eye movements, how much subjects lean forward, or facial movement, to gauge consumers' underlying responses. Brain activity is another measure. For example, Microsoft recently used EEG scans to track people's attention spans in a multiscreen environment as part of an upcoming study. Since many of us multitask on different devices, say using our phones while we watch TV, our consumption of media messages has changed. That is of great interest to the advertisers that invest in delivering those messages.

"It's the first time, at least in the Canadian market, that we have used this type of neuro-research," said Alyson Gausby, consumer insights lead at Microsoft Canada. Her team is currently analyzing the results. "Through this, we get some really deep, rich data. … It's not something that people are necessarily able to articulate. You can't really ask someone, 'How would you rate your attention?' "

Last year, to promote its sponsorship of TSN's Fantasy Football league, Coors Light released a series of videos featuring the network's personalities competing in their own office pool.

The brand's media agency, MEC, expected anchor Kate Beirness to be the most popular among viewers. But in testing, EEG scans of 50 fantasy football players showed higher response levels on average to host Cabral (Cabbie) Richards; halfway through the campaign, before the second set of videos was filmed, they tweaked the scripts to make Cabbie the winner.

"This is very much not common practice," Alastair Taylor, chief client officer at MEC, said of neuromarketing.

The agency is now pitching a number of its big clients on using the technology in their research, for example to test responses to ads before they are launched, or for multinational clients to decide when they can use global work, and when Canadian-specific ads are necessary.

"Because of the second-by-second analysis, we could understand the value of when the brand was more pronounced. When the brand was present, do people's attention and connection generally rise?" Mr. Taylor said. "... I can't believe everyone isn't doing this."

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