What the Tech?: Mapping Human Responses to Super Bowl Ads

Innerscope Research will monitor football fans like Guinea pigs on game day.

Photo via Associated Press

Photo via Associated Press

Even though many people from New England may be less than thrilled to flip on their TVs come Super Bowl Sunday, since the Patriots won’t be making an appearance, football fans will still undoubtedly watch the game—especially for the commercials.

And as the matchup between the Seahawks and Broncos plays out on millions of screens across the country, here in Boston neuroscientists will be conducting a social experiment based on the advertisements that air, to try and detect and predict which TV spots elicit specific human emotions.

Using a combination of biometrics, eye tracking, and facial coding, scientists at Innerscope Research in the North End will keep watch on groups of viewers, all hooked up to sensors, plugs, and monitors of various types, to “produce insights” that can help businesses understand people’s reactions to ads, and gauge consumer behavior.

“We basically use a bunch of technologies to see how [participants] are responding to every second of the game. It’s basically things like a heart rate monitor, and a biometric belt, and doing things like facial coding,” said Brian Levine, president of Innerscope Research. “Looking at non-conscious responses, we can understand how people are going to behave to what they are seeing.”

The company, formed by Levine and cofounder Dr. Carl Marci, in 2006, was born from MIT’s Media Lab after the pair realized their research could effectively predict the outcome of people’s behaviors using algorithms and biometric technology.

Companies have varying ways of measuring an ad’s success during the Super Bowl, whether by following conversations on Twitter and Facebook, scaling it through an “ad meter,” or gauging the response based on YouTube hits once the spot goes live online. But the techniques used by Levine and Marci allows researchers to map out a clearer sense of the relevance and emotional connection a viewer has with what’s happening on the screen and when participants become most engaged.

That information can then be transformed into critical data to help advertisers and marketing agencies rethink their formula for a target audience. It also lets Levine and Marci find patterns in what strikes a chord with participants.

Levine said Innerscope has been conducting these Super Bowl experiments since 2008, and the company typically invites a large group of guests to their headquarters, where large couches, TVs, and a buffet of food await them.

“They get a big open room with comfy chairs, and we have love seats, or big armchairs where people can be comfortable. So it replicates what they might be doing at home,” he said.

The only difference is, these football fans are hooked up to sophisticated pieces of machinery, like vests, and Levine and his team closely monitor them, down to the furl of an eyebrow.

“We are basically going to have five hours of data,” said Levine. “ Everytime something happens we are coding it so when we look back at the data at the end of the Super Bowl, we will have all these data points. Then we will have to go through every ad and map out what the type of responses were, and what was going on [at the time]. We have to figure out what’s popping out and what’s consistent.”

The problem with that, though is the types of ads seem to change based on cultural shifts. For example, Levine said in 2008, ads were flashier, and louder, whereas during the recession they calmed down a little bit and were often aimed at helping people find job prospects using online services.

“There’s so much information, so it’ll be interesting to see what the data tells us this year,” said Levine. “It will be interesting to see if there’s a cycle with economics or politics and things like that. We don’t know what we are going to see. There are also always things…where there’s a disconnect between what people say was really good, and the [actual behavioral] impact.”