Thanks to the miracles of modern pseudo-science, network and advertising executives at CBS can now test the effectiveness of their advertising and programming in new and scary ways. Namely, the network can take a peek inside that fevered subconscious of yours to measure the almost certainly detrimental effect of TV commercials on your fragile psyche. Or at least that’s what their new advertising consultants at NeuroFocus would like us to believe.
Based in Berkely, California, Neurofocus uses EEG technology to measure viewers’ brainwaves, providing them with information on attention levels, emotional engagement and retention in memory to demonstrate not only the effectiveness of advertisements as a whole, but even what scenes or sounds in an advertisement are the most effective. And by directly measuring brain response, rather than having audiences press a button or turn a knob, NeuroFocus claims to be more accurate and less invasive than focus groups and traditional methods of measuring audience response – as long as you consider wearing an electronic skullcap with matching circuit board nose piece invasive.

It’s not just CBS that’s interested in NeuroFocus. Venerable ratings company Nielsen, struggling to maintain relevance and credibility in a market where online advertising and viewers who don’t watch their TV shows on a television, made a significant investment in NeuroFocus earlier this year.
The only problem is that neuroscience remains a very young science, and the ability to measure data doesn’t necessarily equate to the ability to interpret it usefully. Most memory retention studies, for instance, have only tested retention over a period of a few hours or so, and while EEG readings can tell definitively whether viewers are engaged by an image or phrase, they can’t tell marketers why the advertisement is engaging, or perhaps more importantly, whether viewers were enjoying what they saw or enraged by it.
All this leaves aside the issue of the ethical dilemma created when plumbing the depths of the brain for the sake of hocking merch. The moral gray area becomes especially murky when you then place the information you got there into a “Neuroinformatics Database” that allows marketers to target increasingly narrow segments of their audience. More focused advertising that targets the subconscious is enough to make anyone a little squeamish, and in an interview with NPR’s Morning Edition, UC Berkeley neuroscience professor and NeuroFocus consultant Robert T. Knight was a bit evasive when asked if NeuroFocus was a step towards some sort of consumer mind control, trying to clarify that NeuroFocus is only kind of into mind control.

“…are we going to help an advertising industry produce a clearer crisper ad? If you want to call that mind control, then we’re into mind control.”

Knight goes on to clarify, saying that

“… in terms of making you pick something you don’t want, for a reason you don’t understand, I would never want to go there.”

Which is chilling, of course, because it is exactly what someone would say if they were planning to control your mind at some point.