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By Robert Lee Hotz
Emory University scientists studying teenagers listening to new music have discovered tell-tale brain responses that could help predict a song's commercial success.
The new finding offers an insight into the hit-making machinery of the adolescent brain, by documenting involuntary neural reactions to pop music. At the level of cells and synapses, teen-age brains simply find some songs more rewarding to hear, even when the listeners say they don't like the tunes on questionnaires and surveys, the scientists said. So far, no one knows why.
"The punch line is that brain responses correlated with units sold," said neuro-economist Gregory Berns at Emory's Center for Neuropolicy, who conducted the study with Emory neuroscientist Sara Moore. That makes these neural cells in a brain region called the nucleus accumbens, normally involved in reward, pleasure, and anticipation, an effective focus group. "It is far from being a hit predictor, but it was statistically significant."
Indeed, the researchers usually could tell from the strength of brain activity alone which songs would later sell at least 20,000 copies, as tabulated by the Nielsen Company. Generally, 1 in 10 recordings turns a profit, but five songs in their neural top 10 sold more than 50,000 copies each. However, three songs that were not among the top 10 eventually became gold records, selling more than 500,000 copies.
"This research shows that the brain activation is able to predict what music is going to become popular two or three years from now," said Stanford University marketing professor Baba Shiv, who studies decision-making but wasn't involved in the project. "We have to wake up to the notion that these instinctual brain functions can have predictive value."
The research, published online in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, is part of a growing field in which psychologists and economists are using fMRI medical scanners and EEG brain-wave monitors to probe the automatic judgments people make, below the surface of awareness, that help shape decisions, including purchasing and political choices.
Searching for the why of buy, behavioral economists and commercial neuro-marketers have studied brain responses to Super Bowl ads, brand names, soft-drink preferences and car designs. But such studies remain controversial. The Advertising Research Foundation, which is developing standards for neuro-marketing research, cautioned in March that the techniques are still experimental and often unreliable.
In his federally-funded, brain-scanning experiment, Dr. Berns originally set out to study how teenagers are influenced by peer pressure and popularity., using music to see how easily they were swayed by other people's opinions.
In 2006, he recruited 14 girls and 13 boys between the ages of 12 and 18 years old, an age group that accounts for 20% of music sales. During an hour-long session in a brain scanner, each of them listened to brief clips from 120 then-unknown songs, from a variety of styles., including rock, hip-hop, country and western, heavy metal and jazz After listening, they were asked to rate the likability of each tune. The clips were played again, with popularity ratings revealed. Dr. Berns asked the teenagers to rate the songs again, knowing what others thought of the. The brain scans showed that, among those who changed the ratings, anxiety played a key role in conformity.
Three years after that study was finished, Dr. Berns was watching "American Idol" with his two daughters and realized one of those songs from the study had become a hit. That prompted him to compare his earlier findings, recorded when the tunes were unknown, to sales figures for each song from 2007 to 2010.
Teenage ratings of likeability had little predictive value, he discovered, but their brains were effectively tuned to commercial success.
Write to Robert Lee Hotz at firstname.lastname@example.org
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