Publication date: Wednesday, 17 July 2019

When consumers are exposed to videos, they generally show some level of engagement. For marketing and communication practitioners it would be a great advantage to be able to assess the level of engagement with the advertising video or – even better – shape it. What if we could predict when consumers would strongly engage with such content by analysing the neural activity that takes place during subconscious processes in their brains? Businesses and other organisations could then optimise their video towards higher levels of engagement. Hang-Yee Chan, PhD candidate at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) recently produced results that revealed it is possible to predict levels of consumer engagement with a video by showing it to a small group of viewers and measuring their brain responses.

An image showing how brain scans reveal engagement levels of videos

Brain scans reveal engagement levels of videos

We know that people are captivated by video content that’s engaging. Recent studies have demonstrated that when people share a common experience, such as talking with each other, their brains appear to react the same way.

Great videos stimulate similar activity

Consumer engagement is the key to gaining consumer preference. Hang-Yee Chan explains: “We know that people are captivated by video content that’s engaging. Recent studies have demonstrated that when people share a common experience, such as talking with each other, their brains appear to react the same way. That brought me to develop my research question. I wanted to know if several people see a good commercial, do their brains show similarity in the activity in their temporal lobes and cerebellums, the parts of the brain associated with processing emotions and understanding narratives?”

Hang-Yee tested his hypothesis by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of people watching TV commercials, essentially tracking their brain activities while they go through the videos. fMRI measures brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow; blood flow increases in an area of the brain that is active. His study showed correlation between subjects being shown engaging content and the extent to which their brains reacted with similar neural activity. In other words, a fascinating video generated more similar reactions in the brain, whereas a less engaging video would make people’s minds start to wander and ‘tune out’, thus creating disparate brain reactions among viewers.

Predicting engagement for TV commercials and movie trailers

Hang-Yee used fMRI to measure the brain activity of 60 people as they each watched the same sequence of 35 commercials. He compared the brain activity patterns of each participant. Comparisons revealed that commercials that stimulated highly similar neural activity in certain parts of the brains – specifically, areas that are responsible for understanding emotions and narratives – across participants in the experiment also tended to do well at engaging consumers in the market. The findings of this study were echoed in a follow-up study that measured brain activity in 28 people watching a sequence of 18 movie trailers; it implies that the same effect on brain activity is observed in people watching any kind of engaging video.

Emotional content

Marketing practitioners can use this fMRI technique to measure brain activity in test groups of consumers watching videos to be better able to predict market-level response to these videos in the real world. Videos that are less engaging could be adapted before broadcast in the market. This study also demonstrated at which locations in the brain such episodes of similar activity occur. Hang-Yee Chan explains “Similar activity happens in the parts of the brain responsible for processing stories and emotions, implying that adding appealing emotions and easily understandable content to videos increases people’s engagement with the video. fMRI has incredible potential for enhancing marketing strategies by increasing engagement and action.” A. (Ale) Smidts
Professor of Marketing Research
Rotterdam School of Management (RSM)
Erasmus University Rotterdam
Ale Smidts
dr. M.A.S. (Maarten) Boksem
Associate Professor of Marketing Management
Rotterdam School of Management (RSM)
Erasmus University Rotterdam
Maarten Boksem
Pile of books with vibrant bookmarks protruding from various pages, symbolizing in-depth research.

Related articles

RSM Discovery

Want to elevate your business to the next level using the latest research? RSM Discovery is your online research platform. Read the latest insights from the best researchers in the field of business. You can also subscribe to the newsletter to receive a bimonthly highlight with the most popular articles.

Do you want to learn more about this subject?

Check out these RSM education programmes

Your contact for more information:

Danielle Baan

Science Communication and Media Officer

Portrait of Erika Harriford-McLaren

Erika Harriford-McLaren

Corporate Communications & PR Manager

Erasmus University campus in autumn, showcasing its iconic red trees, viewed from across the campus pool.