Nielsen making brain waves

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NEW YORK -- The Nielsen Co. is to announce today a strategic investment in and alliance with NeuroFocus, which specializes in the practice of measuring brain waves to determine consumers' responses to marketing messages.

As part of the deal, Nielsen will be the exclusive provider of NeuroFocus research, which also covers eye-tracking and skin-conductivity measurements, to film studios and TV networks to monitor audience responses to content as well as promos, trailers and other marketing materials.

In addition, Nielsen CEO David Calhoun will join NeuroFocus' board of directors to help guide the company. Nielsen and Berkeley, Calif.-based NeuroFocus will work together to develop new forms of measurement and metrics based on the latest advances in neuroscience.

The companies declined comment on how much Nielsen invested in NeuroFocus or what percentage of the company it now owns, but it is believed to be a minority stake.

Nielsen and NeuroFocus said they are joining forces to bring an array of new offerings to clients in consumer packaged goods as well as TV, film and emerging media. Details of the new services were not available.

NeuroFocus applies its technologies to track the effectiveness of advertising, branding, packaging, pricing and product design. Utilizing marketing, engineering and neuroscience expertise from UC Berkeley, Harvard and MIT, the company measures attention, emotional engagement and memory retention on a millisecond-by-millisecond basis.

Consumers who are paid to volunteer in the NeuroFocus studies wear a specially designed baseball cap containing 64-128 sensors that utilize the company's electroencephalogram technology to measure a person's brain waves 2,000 times per second.

"Literally as a thought or a feeling is forming or coalescing in your mind, we get to catch it," said A.K. Pradeep, CEO of NeuroFocus.

By showing consumers the same promo, ad or pilot repeatedly, Pradeep added, NeuroFocus can determine "wear-out," or the point where a commercial message loses its effectiveness, helping advertisers determine where they should purchase media. The techniques also can determine subconscious responses to an actor or character and the effectiveness of a story line in a show.

Frank Stagliano, executive vp and general manager of the Nielsen Entertainment Television Group, said Nielsen will be touting the technology at the CTAM conference this week and at a large Nielsen client meeting next week.

Nielsen began using the NeuroFocus technology in October, he said, for clients to monitor responses to sponsorships in sports shows, TV pilots and TV promos.

"To sell a product, you have to hit those deep parts of the brain that are associated with memory retention and ultimately, persuasion, to buy a product," Stagliano said. "That is very revolutionary."

Stagliano said Nielsen will install the NeuroFocus technology this quarter at the CBS Television City Research Center at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and at Universal Studios' CityWalk, which is owned by NBC Universal, in order to gain access to a cross-national sample. While Nielsen is limited from providing NeuroFocus research emerging from those facilities to competing broadcast networks, it can collect the data elsewhere to serve those clients.

So-called "neuromarketing" has drawn its share of criticism over the years, including a petition from consumer group Commercial Alert, which called in 2004 for a Senate investigation of the methodology. Despite concerns over the concept of reading people's brain waves and thoughts in order to sell them products, Stagliano said Nielsen hasn't encountered any opposition to its partnership with NeuroFocus.

"It's not invasive in any sense," Stagliano said. "We're very upfront with what this is."

"We never attempt nor can we ever read thoughts," Pradeep added.

Although there have been inquiries about utilizing the techniques to determine responses to candidates in the presidential race, NeuroFocus has not yet made a decision on whether it will work with clients in the political arena, Pradeep said.

The deal is not exclusive to Nielsen for advertisers outside of film and TV, such as packaged goods companies and emerging media ventures, but Pradeep said NeuroFocus is not planning on partnering with any other companies at this point.

The Hollywood Reporter is a division of Nielsen Co.     

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