Sun, Jun 25, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Brain science meets `Gone with the Wind'

A man from CalTech knows what you are thinking and Hollywood is hoping he will predict what the next blockbuster will be

By John Sutherland  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Do his results largely agree with the methods that Hollywood has traditionally used (showing previews to trial audiences), or traditional market survey methods?

"There's some agreement. But we find that with many of the measures we come up with, using brain science, there is no corresponding measure that can be turned up using the traditional methodologies. Those methodologies find some things very difficult, or impossible, to measure. `Memorability' is a good example of this.

"If you ask people, `How memorable is something?' with a view to finding out how long it will stick in their mind, they find it very hard to answer. That information, incidentally, is very important with movies where you may see a trailer months before the film is released.

"We know that there are regions of the brain that are involved in the encoding of long-term memories. And if we look there for activity, we can predict how likely it is that someone will remember in the future having seen this or that item. That's valuable for all sorts of communication strategies in marketing. The modern consumer is inundated with marketing messages, most of which don't make it into our memory at all.

"Another measure that you can't extract with traditional methods is `salience' -- in other words, how interesting a stimulus is for our brain. About 80 percent of processes in the brain are unconscious and most of those processes are automatically filtering, at their unconscious level, the world around us to decide whether something is worthy of sending upstairs for attention. Only the things that the brain decides are salient, or interesting, get sent up into our conscious mind. You can't interrogate people about things that. So finding out things like that, with brain science, is important. Take something as mundane as picking out a box of cereal, or a magazine cover, from a host of competing similar products. The producer dearly wants to know what will stand out, or capture the consumer's attention.

"The maybe not-so-dirty secret of marketing is that there's not a whole lot of evidence that traditional research works. Typically marketing budgets follow the successful product, rather than the other way around. And even in design, 95 percent of new products fail. What brain imaging does is to figure a way to find better and more effective ways of offering service to the customer."

So, as they used to say of the customer, the brain is always right?

"Yes, I think that's correct," he said.

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