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A few brain scans predicted how many people would watch “The Walking Dead”

AP Photo/Gene Page
Are you paying attention?
By Sonali Kohli
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

What if the makers of movie trailers could predict the scenes you’d like best to include in the trailer before you saw the movie? That kind of predictive power may be on the horizon for film and television advertisers, thanks to new neuroscience research.

Researchers at the City College of New York and the Georgia Institute of Technology measured the brain activity of 16 people while they watched the pilot of AMC’s The Walking Dead, and used the data to predict when viewers were most likely to be watching during the show’s 90-minute air time. They then compared that to Nielsen’s minute-by-minute ratings.

The scientists used electroencephalography (EEG) to measure something called inter-subject correlation, which usually increases when there are scenes that evoke arousal, negative emotions or familiar events. They didn’t make a judgment on whether the viewers liked or disliked the content, but these reactions were an indicator of when large audience would pay the most attention. People’s brains responded similarly when paying attention to the same thing, but differently when they were thinking about something different during the show (at home that happens when viewers change the channel).

The scientists’ predictions were about 60% accurate, CCNY biomedical engineering professor Lucas Parra tells Quartz.

Nature Communications
Actual viewership of the “Walking Dead” pilot, compared to predictions based on brain scans of 16 people watching.

The portions in red signal when the show cut to an ad—viewership dipped more in reality than the researchers predicted. The researchers had a 40% success rate in predicting how many tweets about the show would be generated throughout the viewing (they assumed tweets would be more likely when viewers were especially stimulated).

Similar predictive methods were used to forecast the popularity of a sample of Superbowl ads in from 2012 and 2013. Parra says the researchers were able to predict with about 80% accuracy the popularity of the ads when compared to an online survey of ad popularity. For example, the brain waves of viewers matched well during the ad of the rescue dog fetching Budweisers, which was voted as the second-favorite Superbowl ad of the year.


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