Monday, July 27, 2009

Look into my !

A front page story in today's NYT biz section about new research from the Walt Disney Company had me chuckling, with fond remembrance about my earliest days in the media biz and my marketing and advertising classes as a young MBA student. A reminder that, in some ways, everything changes and yet nothing does.

In the latest developments from the internet world, the story reports on how Disney is hooking up research subjects to a device which monitors eye movements, heart rates, facial expressions, and so forth during web browsing to try to quantify which forms of internet advertising are the most impactful to the reader. Hmm.

Once upon a time, at my first magazine job with Sports Illustrated, we experimented with what we nicknamed 'sweaty palms' research, which involved wiring the subjects' hands and other body parts to a monitor that measured galvanic skin response to a series of newsstand cover elements to understand and manipulate those variables to increase retail sales. Changes in electrical conductivity of the skin were equated to 'unconscious' positive/negative feedback, etc etc, and so forth and so on. Since the research results could never really be well correlated to field studies that might verify the relationship between sweaty palms and better sales, the project was eventually abandoned and we went back to old fashioned numbers crunching to find the answers that never really came.

We keep looking for ways we can better understand consumer behavior in order to control or influence it, and I guess I'll cop to being an active participant in this process in my media career. What interests me are the pretenders to the Holy Grail, such as the internet, which, as the ultimate measurable tool of consumer response, purports to thereby be the channel for the ultimate answers to what makes us buy. Someday, perhaps, as we are able to map and correlate complex neural pathways and interactivity, we will find the answers, but we are not there yet and perhaps no closer to it than during my days with the sweaty palms.

I was more inspired by another report I read the other day in The New Yorker, about the origins of super-sizing. A movie theater owner, searching for ways to increase popcorn (and soda) consumption, stumbled on the idea of jumbo-size popcorn boxes and watched as popcorn and soda sales soared---an idea he eventually passed along to Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald's....and the rest is history.

There is a complexity---some might say mystery---to we humans that cannot yet be diagrammed, computed, predicted, and controlled. Perhaps that is the source of what has allowed our species to dominate the planet, for better and worse. And maybe someday we will all be programmed and choreographed, with and without our consent. In the meantime, I salute the research attempts, hope to continue to initiate more of my own, but with a skepticism that some unknowns may remain unknowns for a long time to come. Hooray.

No comments:

Post a Comment