UT Dallas - The LINK
October 2014

Alumna Delves Into Neuroscience Behind TV Ads, Consumer Behavior

Sarah Yu PhD'13

Wonder why some TV commercials resonate so strongly with consumers? Dr. Sarah Yu PhD'13, an alumna of the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences and former researcher at the Center for Vital Longevity (CVL), is working to find out.

Yu, who worked under Dr. Michael Rugg at the CVL, is part of a team at Nielsen Neuro in Chicago trying to understand what makes advertising effective to consumers by using tools that neuroscientists in academia have used for decades, including electroencephalography (EEG).

"We have the capacity to run 20 to 24 subjects a day, and work with clients in consumer packaged goods, retail, financial services, automotive and technology industries," she said.

Traditionally, insights into consumers' reactions to marketing communications were gathered from focus groups and responses to surveys. Nielsen Neuro, the consumer neuroscience division of Nielsen, which may be best known for its TV ratings system, directly measures consumers' brain responses.

Yu and 13 other neuroscientists probe neural responses elicited when consumers interact with marketing communications, which range from new product packaging to 30-second television ads. In addition to gathering EEG data, researchers also use an eye-tracking camera to capture where participants' eyes are drawn while viewing advertisements.

"Using EEG to find out which seconds of a TV ad are most emotionally engaging or which seconds are causing confusion to the viewer is a really powerful tool for our clients, whose goals are to optimize the effectiveness of their marketing material," Yu said.

"It's an ability to find out what works — and what doesn't — at a very diagnostic and precise level for their advertising."

Dr. Michael Rugg, director of the Center for Vital Longevity, uses electroencephalography (EEG) in his lab. EEG is a tool also employed by Nielsen in its consumer research, requiring the participant to wear a cap interspersed with electrodes that help record brain activity.

Nielsen Neuro's clients also include nonprofits that want to use science to create more appealing consumer messages that will spur change for the good of society, such as those by the Ad Council, whose campaigns raise awareness about childhood hunger and pet adoption.

In addition to designing experiments, Yu serves as a staff expert on cognitive neuroscience at meetings with clients. She translates highly technical findings into concepts that clients can understand and that may determine the direction of their products.

Yu credits a big part of her smooth transition into consumer neuroscience research to the training she received with Rugg and at the CVL.

"The skill I learned from Mick of saying only what I mean and not overinterpreting data is one I use every day when providing science support to my team and with clients," she said.

"I never imagined that my background in basic memory research could have led me to a career in market research. Ultimately, it was a great match."

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