Surveillance Entertainment

neuromrkt300In some ways we love being watched – or at least we love the results. Not only are Nielsen ratings essential to the entertainment and advertising industries, they also make for entertaining content. Who hasn’t perused within the last week at least one list of the highest grossing movies, the most downloaded songs, the most emailed articles? Most likely, you consumed that content in a place that’s selling ads – a newspaper, magazine or a web site – and so, ironically enough, the audience data that those outlets use in order to figure out what content they should provide to you ends up becoming part of the content mix that you consume.

What might this mean? Well, not only are we exhibitionists (consult your national TV listings), we are also voyeurs, greedily consuming and exchanging information about what we like. There’s entertainment value, certainly, in reading one of the ‘most emailed stories’ that catches your fancy, but there’s also a certain delight in reading the top ten list itself – even if you have no interest in nine of those stories. Far from simple navel gazing, the drive to understand what our social group cares about is actually something worth knowing. It’s a survival instinct, no doubt, to understand what the club thinks is cool . . . especially if you’re a member of the out-group. Although we usually suggest it’s a guilty pleasure, I would argue that our seemingly insatiable interest in the pop culture zeitgeist is worth satisfying.

Of course, our mission at the Lear Center is to understand precisely this, how it is that entertainment and leisure, the stuff we do when it doesn’t matter what we’re doing, affects us in profound ways. As a media researcher, I want to make substantiated claims about how people are consuming popular culture and the significance of that activity. That means I have a ravenous appetite for any information about audiences that I can find – ratings, focus group data, social science experiments, survey results – but most of this research is proprietary and very expensive to purchase. This is miserable news for academics who want to try their hand at entertainment studies, but it certainly increases the pleasure of the hunt. Just like the marketers who commission most of this research, I too am trying to find the key to unlock the mind of the consumer, the voter, the TV watcher, the Web site visitor. Though I’m not trying to sell a product, I am there, hot on their trail, surveilling them to the best of my ability and trying to figure out what it all means.

But the audience measurement terrain is changing very quickly, as new technologies are adapted for marketing purposes. No doubt you’ve heard of neuromarketing – the effort to judge the value of a product by monitoring a person’s brainwaves using fMRI or EEG mapping. This field is blossoming as neuroscientists and marketers receive more and more funding to gather and analyze data. Since the media environment has become so deeply fragmented – with an explosion in video games, virtual worlds, cable and satellite network channels, and the growing reach of broadband – marketers have become more and more desperate for accurate data about consumers, and media outlets are increasingly concerned about selling eyeballs to advertisers.

Last year, DDI Magazine issued a special report called Eye on the Customer, which outlines some cutting-edge new tools that have been added to the audience metrics game, including eye-tracking technology, galvanic skin response, behavior-capturing video cameras and facial coding analysis. Just in case you weren’t sure, Big Brother is watching: the report mentions that Starbucks, Office Depot, Toys ‘R’ Us, Walgreens, Best Buy, Tesco, Marks & Spencer and Abercrombie & Fitch are already using some of these tools.

Social science researchers have long struggled with the problem of self-reportage (we shamelessly lie about ourselves and our behavior), so being able to tap into a consumer’s brain and find out exactly how she’s responding to something is the holy grail of audience (and human behavior) research. While we may suspect that marketers don’t yet know how to interpret this new stream of data, a spokesperson for NeuroFocus claims that they can produce a precise numerical measurement of a person’s attention level, their emotional engagement and their memory retention . . . all based on ‘well-established neuroscience.’

So what changes will we see in the marketplace from this new influx of surveillance data? Currently, ‘83% of all commercial communication appeals to only one sense – sight’: that’s according to Martin Lindstrom, author of BUYology: The Truth and Lies About Why We Buy and the Signs of Desire. But neuromarketers have discovered that targeting a consumer’s sense of smell and sound is the better method of attracting their attention, engaging them emotionally and getting them to remember your product. Retail environments are already shifting in response to this data, but you can bet that these findings will have a huge impact on ad campaigns and entertainment content alike, with currently silent campaigns developing an auditory element, and (please say it ain’t so) the development of next-generation scratch ‘n’ sniff.

One possible result from gathering more accurate data is that audiences will be delivered more entertainment content that they actually like – which sounds like good news to me. But if neuromarketing tools are used to establish what it is we like, a lot of it will be stuff that our conscious minds may think is complete crap. If Lindstrom and his gaggle of neuroscientists are right, 80% of all decisions we make are subconscious. So maybe we’re not lying when we tell marketers we like one thing, even though we end up buying another, but how will our conscious minds respond when we’re surrounded by a world of consumer culture that reflects our subconscious desires? Popular culture has been described as a mirror held up to society: what happens if we no longer recognize our shiny new reflection?

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