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Tracking Cognitive and Emotional Processes During the Observation of TV Commercials

By Vecchiatio et al.

Author: Vecchiato et al. “Neuroelectrical Brain Imaging Tools for the Study of the Efficacy of TV Advertising Stimuli and their Application to Neuromarketing”. Springer. Series: Biosystems & Biorobotics, Vol. 3. 2013, XVIII, 136 p. 55 illus.

Research Description

Nowadays, neuroscientific methodologies include powerful brain imaging tools to gather the hemodynamic or electromagnetic signals related  to the human brain activity during the performance of a relevant marketing task. Each year, a huge amount of money is used to promote commercial communications. It is really important for marketing research to provide benchmarks and evaluations of how the commercials impacted on people. The reason why marketing researchers are interested in the use of brain imaging tools, instead of simply asking people to indicate their preferences in front of marketing stimuli, arises from the assumption that people cannot –or do not want to- fully explain their preferences when explicitly asked. Hence, marketers are investigating the use of neuroimaging tools to quantitatively assess the outcome of a produced advertisement. In this study, the focus was to measure and analyze the brain activity and the emotional engagement that occurred during the “naturalistic” observation of commercial ads. The final goal was to link significant variations of electroencephalographic and autonomic variables with the cognitive and emotional reactions to the TV advertisements presented. In order to do that, different indexes were employed to summarize the performed measurements and to be used in the statistical analysis.


Since temporal resolution of milliseconds is necessary to track the shifts of brain activity related to the processing of visual and acoustic stimuli of TV commercials, functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) devices cannot return information on which scenes of an advertisement are of interest for people and which ones are not. On the other hand, high resolution electroencephalography (hrEEG) is able to detect rapid changes of the cortical activity on a temporal scale of milliseconds. Moreover, EEG devices are relatively inexpensive, robust and even wearable by people, making such technology suitable for the evaluation of marketing stimuli. Also, indirect signs of the emotional processing can also be collected by picking variations of the anatomical structures activity linked to the limbic system, such as one of the sweat glands of the hands and the variability of the heart rate. The particular procedure of the experimental task consisted of observing a documentary in which a series of TV commercials were inserted. The experimental subjects were told to pay attention to the movie they would be watching, and were unaware that an interview would be held within a couple of hours after the end of the recording. In the interview, the subjects were asked to recall commercial clips they remembered and to score them according to the degree of pleasantness they perceived. The dataset was then divided into several subgroups in order to highlight differences between the cerebral activity related to the observation of the remembered and forgotten ads, and those between the liked against the disliked commercials. Finally, the experimental questions of the present study were the following: are there particular EEG activities correlating with the memorization and the perceived interest related to the observed TV commercial? Are there particular cerebral and autonomic indexes describing the emotional state experienced while watching the TV commercial?


The hrEEG technologies allowed to track the temporal trend of the cortical activities to be analyzed thanks to a high temporal and spatial resolution, distinguishing changes of activation of cortical areas by means of a graphical representation on an average brain model. The reconstruction of the cortical activity Led to highlight the cerebral regions that were significantly activated when compared to the observation of the documentary, frame by frame. Statistical cortical spectral maps returned that the theta band activity during the observation of the TV commercials that were remembered is higher and localized in the left frontal brain areas when compared to the activity elicited by forgotten advertisements. A similar increase of the alpha rhythms occurred during the observation of advertisements that were judged pleasant when compared with the others. Both cognitive and emotional processing have been described by the Memorization (MI), Attention (AI) and Pleasantness Index (PI). The percentage of spontaneous recall is linearly correlated with the MI values (R2=0.68, p<0.01). In particular, when both MI and AI are below their average values the percentage of spontaneous recall (18%) is below average as well. This percentage is slightly increased (20%) when the AI exceeds the average threshold. The highest values of spontaneous recall correspond to MI values above average. In fact, in this case the percentage reaches the value of 33% when the AI is below average and the value of 41% when both MI and AI are above average. As to the PI, the de-synchronization of left alpha frontal activity is positively correlated with judgments of high pleasantness. In addition, the heart rate activity elicited during the observation of the TV commercials that were remembered or judged pleasant is higher than the activity during the observation of commercials that will be forgotten or were judged unpleasant.


The results underline that properties of the EEG rhythms, collected during the observation of TV advertisements, are linked with the overt preferences of the observers in terms of cognition and emotion. They can be used to generate metrics that automatically point to parts of the examined commercials that are congruent from the emotional and the cognitive point of view. This information could be used a posteriori to redraw the advertisement in order to highlight the pleasant frames while suppressing the unpleasant ones. Finally, these tools allow the cognitive and emotional processes dynamics tobe analyzed.

Final Thoughts

From the marketing researcher’s point of view, there is the hope that these brain-imaging techniques will provide an efficient trade-off between the costs and benefits of the research. Improving the quality of the marketing messages will enable industries to waste less money in the production of ineffective or inappropriate advertisements and help them to better match the demands of people related to the products being advertised. The use of neuroimaging tools in the evaluation of the commercial ads will help to reduce the amount of money that is wasted in the advertising industry.

Contact information: Giovanni Vecchiato /

This article was originally published in the Neuromarketing yearbook of last year. Order the 2015, 2016 or 2017 Neuromarketing yearbook here!