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December 28, 2003

Facial Action Coding System and the new marketing science 

Here is a great example of the increasingly scientific methods marketers and brand managers are using to understand "consumer behaviour" as reported in a recent edition of Business 2.0 (subscription req'd), attempts that I call marketing's little innovation boulders, as a recent post on my blog Creating Positive Context elaborates. I'll let them describe:
Ever since Columbia University sociologist Robert Merton performed what is considered the forerunner of the modern focus group -- a 1941 interview of radio listeners regarding their views on the U.S. government's morale-boosting shows -- market researchers have suspected that subjects deny, exaggerate, and otherwise misreport their own emotions. Merton himself, in his 1956 book The Focused Interview, warned that societal norms might cause interviewees to "censor their self-reports, denying (sometimes even to themselves) the stirrings of sentiment." He imagined that marketers might one day invent an "introspectometer," but noted that "since no such device exists, the nearest equivalent available is to have each subject act as his own introspectometer."

Sensory Logic is an East Cost scientific market research business that "specializes in the analysis of the psycho-physiological responses of consumers to an organization's products and services." Founded by Dan Hill, it believes it has finally developed something close to the "introspectometer". Based on the Facial Action Coding System developed in the 1970's by US Sociologist Paul Ekman (which classified over 3000 facial muscle movements - the "eyelid tightener" expresses anger, for instance, and the "nasolabial fold deepener" manifests sadness), the system has "proven to be highly accurate". Sensory Logic of course, uses facial expressions to identify and interpret consumer reactions to advertising. (My own facial expression is currently registering "disbelief" and "astonishment" at this claim):
To measure initial gut reactions to a commercial or ad, Sensory Logic first attaches electrodes to the side of a subject's mouth (monitoring the zygomatic muscle, for smiles), above the eyebrow (corrugator muscle, for frowns), and on two fingers (for sweat). Hill says the facial muscle movements reflect appeal, while perspiration translates into what he calls "impact" -- emotional power. Last summer Sensory Logic wired up 40 subjects recruited from a Pittsburgh mall and showed them a Nationwide Insurance TV commercial called "Smashworld," which depicted a parallel universe with no insurance -- and streets full of dented cars. When onscreen Nationwide agents saved the day (by processing claims), appeal and impact scores soared (wow! - CL). But when two men had an accident in the final scene -- added for comic relief by Nationwide's ad agency -- appeal tanked. "With this methodology, you really see where audience attitude goes south," says Nationwide market researcher Michelle Tufford. She went instead with a spot that had a happier ending.

After Sensory Logic founder Dan Hill takes the initial readings, he ditches the electrodes and then videotapes the interview with each subject. Later his FACS-trained team reviews the video, second by second, cataloging emotions. Replaying the tape of a young woman who says she's "bored" by one version of Nationwide's logo, Hill points out that her expressions say much more. "Her eyebrows come together in a triangle," he says. "And see that upside-down smile? She's approaching what we call a 'super-sneer.'"

"Super-sneer" indeed. One wonders about the next development in facial expression research. Maybe people sitting at home could volunteer to be wired up for an evening's viewing in front of the TV ads or we even could wear the face connectors whilst out shopping in the mall, helping brands understand people's reactions to the mix of goods on the shelves. Seriously though, there must surely be a limit to depth and scope of understanding this technique brings. It would appear to be a classic "little innovation boulder".

Why doesn't someone think about recording people's overall reaction to growing commercial encroachment of media and ads into our "mental environment". Maybe we could invent a "Super Brand BS Detector", one that records our multiple frustrations, thoughts and experiences with businesses as we go about our daily lives ... Hmm. maybe not ...

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