Sex and burgers work! Neuro against the "expert" opinion

 In about Neurons Inc, Advertising, arousal, attention, cognition, consciousness, EEG, emotions, eye-tracking, gender, motivation, neuromarketing, preference

Recently, USA Today ran a story about one of the latest ads for Carls Jr burgers, using model Charlotte McKinney walking down a food market completely au naturel.

So the discussion goes: does the ad work? According to branding expert Erika Napoletano it’s an absolute no-go: “It makes NFL cheerleaders — underpaid and underclothed — look like nuns in comparison,” and that with 46% of Super Bowl TV viewers women, this ad is likely garner social media backlash.

Basically, the point being made is that the cues made in the ad are highly unlikely to drive the brand message through, and consumers are unlikely to remember what the ad is for. Moreover, that women are even more unlikely to “like” the ad, simply because they will show a negative response to the ad.

Fortunately, we have recently run a major ad study where a typical Carls Jr ad was among the flock of ads that were shown, where we measured both eye-tracking and a host of biometric signals, including EEG and facial coding. So why not have a peek into some preliminary results?

The study setup was aimed at allowing for more natural responses to ad exposures. This was done by doing three things:

  1. Having a center screen (with eye-tracking) and with two distractor screens showing a rotating show of non-extreme images

  2. Instructing the participants with a cover story that we were only interested in a couple of documentaries, and with no mention of the ads

  3. Providing a battery of surprise tests on ad liking, ad and brand memory and other scores such as association tests and willingness to buy the product

In total, 103 people were tested (52 women, age range 20-35, mean±std = 26.8±2.8) on two documentaries interspersed with 16 randomly shown ads. While we recorded a host of measures, including EEG, eye-tracking, facial coding, heart-rate variability, postural changes and pupil dilation, here we will only focus on the subsequent memory scores and the emotional responses as shown by the EEG.

Notably, the ad we showed was the one that included Jenny McCarthy. All things being equal, this ad has the exact same theme, sexual over- and undertones ad with the same kind of potential disturbance of ad performance. The video can be seen below.


Ad memory and preference performance

First, we could ask whether the Carls Jr ad performed any different than other ads on brand memory or ad memory? That is, did viewers fail to report that they remembered the either the ad or the brand that was shown for this ad? The results were pretty convincing: for both brand memory and ad memory, Carl’s Jr was the third most remembered ad out of 16 ads (that’s the top 18.8%).

So how about ad liking? Here, Carl’s Jr scored at the bottom 3rd of the 16 ads! This suggests that the ad had a low conscious preference, but nevertheless scored the highest on certain actual consumer behaviours such as ad and brand memory.

This observation is further supported by measurements of people’s willingness to buy and willingness to pay for the product advertised, where Carl’s Jr was the top scorer! Together this suggests that although ad liking may be low, actual ad performance for ads such as Carl’s Jr can indeed be beating all other ads. This finding is extremely interesting, seen in light of the advertising industry’s strong focus on ad liking. If ad liking is indeed such a poor guide to actual ad performance, why do we still use it?

Carl's Jr ad effects

Ad effects on liking, brand and ad memory, Carl’s Jr ad is highlighted

Looking at the relationship between ad liking and memory scores, we find that there is in fact a NEGATIVE relationship between ad liking and ad/brand memory. That is, the more people seem to subjectively like an ad, the less they seem to remember the ad or what brand it was for! So much for ad liking as a meaningful measure?

Ad liking and memory

Ad liking and memory, linear regression analysis, showing that if anything, ad liking is negatively related to ad memory performance, including brand memory (left) and ad memory (right).

Also interesting, we find that there were NO gender differences on either ad liking, ad memory or brand memory, suggesting that whatever people do when they see the ads, gender does not play a major role.


Neurometric scores – predicting ad performance

If there is one claim that neuromarketing and applied neuroscience makes, it is that it is possible to assess emotional and cognitive responses that consumers are neither privy to or are able (or willing) to verbalise, and yet that can have a dramatic effect on subsequent consumer behaviour. By looking at the biometric scores, we find that the use of EEG and in combination with facial coding have an extremely high predictive ability (report to come soon).

For now, let’s focus on two EEG scores: arousal (parasympathetic engagement) and motivation (frontal asymmetry, approach vs avoidance). By looking at these responses, we see that Carl’s Jr was the highest scorer of all 16 ads:

Ad arousal & motivation (EEG)

Ad arousal & motivation (EEG), Carl’s Jr ad highlighted

In total, we find that the biometric and neurometric scores are extremely accurate in predicting ad performance beyond ad liking. BTW, ad liking is also predicted very well, but this seems redundant relative to predicting actual consumer behaviours such as memory and choice behaviours.


Going beyond aggregates – actionable insights from the temporal resolution of neurometrics

While aggregate scores for ads are great, neurometrics allow for even more in-depth analyses of ads. For example, in the Carl’s Jr ad we tested, it is possible to look at how aggregate responses across the group can be used to see the peaks and troughs in consumer responses. Below, you can see the eye-tracking heat-map representing where people are looking, and below this is the graphs for arousal, motivation and cognitive load:

Notably, as can be seen and perhaps to no surprise, the sexual scenes are indeed those that produce the strongest changes in arousal and motivation. These scores clearly demonstrate which parts of the ad work the best and drive viewer emotions.

Further analyses can be made by breaking down the analysis into Areas Of Interest analyses of specific parts of the scenes (e.g., product, brand, person), and looking at group differences (e.g., between genders), and many other rich statistical analyses.

For now, the conclusion of this initial analysis of Carl’s Jr ads is that sex sells…not only in terms of better ad and brand memory, but also driving actual consumer choice. Moreover, this effect was NOT picked up by self-reported ad liking, and if anything, ad liking is a negative predictor of the other consumer responses.

In these days, neuromarketing and biometric measures are often put to a higher standard than standard methods such as self-reports, dials, focus groups and surveys. The example given here with Carl’s Jr shows something most neuromarketers already knows: these measures are not only “good enough” measures but most often far superior measures of ad and branding effects.

Isn’t it time that we are driven by evidence rather than history and habit?

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