A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words: Winning Hearts With Neuroscience


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The “lost” Leonardo da Vinci painting Salvator Mundi—which sold at auction in November 2017 for a record-breaking $450.3 million—generated many pages of news coverage in the U.K. There are fewer than 20 paintings by Leonardo still in existence, and this one was thought for many years to be a copy, selling in 1958 for just $60 before being authenticated in 2011. 

The success of the sale has been attributed to brilliant marketing by Christie’s auction house and to competitive billionaires slugging it out to outbid each other (the picture is destined for the new Louvre Abu Dhabi museum). Scarcity must have played its part, but some of the interest in the painting must be due to the serene beauty of the work itself: It has been called “the male Mona Lisa.” But what is it that makes one image so strongly appealing, and another forgettable?

It’s not just a question for art historians. Any marketing campaign worth its salt needs to carefully optimize its visual content. Brands want an image that will attract the attention of potential customers and that will make their product or service stand out from the crowd. But more than that, brands want to select images that generate the right kind of emotional response, keying into the appropriate brand values. It’s no good advertising the latest running shoes with images that make the viewer feel restful and relaxed.

These sorts of choices no longer have to be based on gut feeling alone. Saddington Baynes (SB) is a London-based image production company, which specializes in creating images for print, digital, and broadcast media. Speaking at the Future of TV Advertising conference in London, SB’s CEO, Chris Christodoulou, explained how neuroscience testing can be used to uncover how consumers really feel about the imagery used in campaigns. Gerald Zortman of Harvard Business School argues that 95% of consumer decision making stems from the unconscious mind, which drives perceptions and shapes behavior. However, traditional consumer research engages only the conscious mind. That’s one reason why consumer behavior is notoriously hard to predict.

Christodoulou explained that at SB, developments in technology mean that neuroscience techniques such as psychometrics and neurometrics (measuring brain activity) can be put to work to help reinforce gut instinct when selecting and working with images for campaigns. This, in turn, allows brands and creatives to measure and fine-tune the emotional impact of their campaign imagery.

SB was able to apply these neuroscience techniques to the creation and fine-tuning of a virtual showroom for Honda as part of Honda’s Real View Test Drive campaign. The techniques enable the fine adjustment of many variables—how might a subtle change in background color, or camera angle, affect the way a consumer responds to the representation of a car in a virtual showroom?

But it’s not just the creative advertising world taking notice. At the start of 2016, Apple acquired Emotient, a startup that uses artificial-intelligence technology to read people’s emotions by analyzing facial expressions. Last year, Facebook opened a Center for Marketing Science Innovation in New York, which will conduct neuroscience research designed to help advertisers and content creators understand content consumption across different devices and settings.

In an interview with Adweek, Daniel Slotwiner, Facebook’s director of advertising research, explained that the center will monitor users’ biometric data while they scroll through their newsfeeds or watch shows, using techniques such as eye tracking and the measurement of skin response, heart rate, and facial expression. The aim, according to Slotwiner, is to discover more about these signals and how they relate to user behavior.

Despite all this innovation, it’s early days for these sorts of techniques. The smart money says that insights developed from the application of neuroscience are unlikely to replace gut instinct completely. But it will be fascinating to discover new directions for content as the field of emotional analytics develops.


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