Emotionomics

Emotionomics: Leveraging Emotions for Business Success by Dan Hill (Beaver’s Pond Press) builds on the premise that “facial coding,” the interpreting of the often involuntary expressions our faces make (sometimes called microexpressions), can be used to better understand our real emotions, reactions, and intentions. The concept of facial coding is simple in theory, if somewhat more difficult in practice: there are a finite group of facial expressions, and each signifies some emotional state. These expressions are often fleeting, but by careful analysis can be used to gauge a subject’s real reaction to an advertisement, a product, etc. The reactions revealed by analyzing facial expressions are often at odds with what the same individuals say when they describe their reaction verbally. For example, even though a flicker of disgust may pass over a person’s face in viewing an ad, that same person may say they liked it. Much of the original work in the field of facial coding has been done by Paul Ekman, of the University of California at San Francisco. Hill’s company, Sensory Logic, worked with Ekman to learn facial coding analysis techniques and has been employing them for more than ten years.

Hill spends an early chapter on how facial coding works that includes illustrations of the “seven core emotions” revealed by facial expressions: surprise, fear, anger, disgust, sadness, contempt, and happiness. He also notes that happiness is demonstrated by true smiles and social smiles – the latter involve only the mouth and may indicate that the subject is lying. Hill’s approach evaluates advertising in two dimensions: Impact and Appeal. Impact is the intensity of the emotion(s) exhibited, while Appeal is a measure of the positive or negative aspect of the emotion. In addition to the Impact/Appeal divide, Hill also uses a time dimension in evaluating advertisements like television commercials where emotions can change as the ad progresses. In some cases, eye tracking data may be used to determine what portion of an ad is causing the emotional response.

Hill describes what he calls the Emotionomics Matrix, a sort of wheel that includes what he considers the most important human motivations: Defend at the center, with Acquire, Learn, and Bond around the perimeter. Emotions such as anger, happiness, and disgust are placed at various points in and around the wheel. Hill refers to this through much of the book, which may be a bit off-putting for readers who don’t necessarily buy into that simple breakdown of human motivation and emotion. Still, it provides a framework for the analysis that makes up much of the book.

The best parts of Emotionomics are the real-world examples of facial coding applications. One such example is from the automotive industry, where an automaker had Hill’s firm evaluate a major national print ad campaign that included an apology for previous quality problems. Overall, the campaign was viewed negatively by about 80% of the subjects. Even three quarters of current owners of the product reacted negatively – perhaps not surprising, since the ad more or less suggests that the current owners were duped into buying a piece of junk. Another ad from a pharmaceutical company under fire for product safety was evaluated; one variation of the ad was defensive on the safety topic, while the other was more upbeat. While the verbal responses from subjects viewing the two ads didn’t vary much, facial coding analysis showed a much more negative response to the ad, particularly among a group of subjects supportive of the brand. The dramatic difference in the facial coding response convinced the firm to shelf the defensive ad and run only the upbeat version.

In another example, an unnamed appliance maker showed subjects a new feature being considered for addition to an appliance. The subjects responded enthusiastically to the survey questions: twice as many saw more of an upside than saw a downside to the feature, and only 5% were concerned about the feature being something else to “go wrong” later. Facial coding analysis, though, determined that 79% of the subjects had a negative emotional reaction to the feature, making it a doubtful addition indeed.

Facial coding is another window into the black box of the human mind. (Many readers were introduced to the idea by Malcolm Gladwell in his best-selling Blink; for a lengthy and interesting article by Gladwell on the topic, check out The Naked Face.) Neuroeconomics and neuromarketing researchers use complex and costly fMRI machines as another window. Other technologies, such as EEGs, offer yet another perspective. It’s likely that each approach will yield different insights. One advantage of the facial coding approach is that it doesn’t require complex, noisy machinery or that the subject be immobile, wear a helmet or sensors, etc. Theoretically, at least, this should result in more natural reactions. Oddly, despite the length of time that Ekman and a few others have been conducting research and that Hill’s firm has been using it, facial coding has not caught on in a big way, even as an academic research topic. Various law enforcement agencies seem to be the most enthusiastic adopters of facial coding; they teach the technique to interviewers to help them identify deception and better understand the individual being questioned.

There are a plethora of examples, we’d like to see more statistically significant A/B testing. While the anecdotal data from these many efforts is compelling, it would be more so if we could directly correlate the difference in observed expressions with varied performance in the marketplace. Of course, most of Hill’s customers want to test their marketing before they spend the money, and most types of marketing don’t lend themselves to precise A/B testing.

Emotionomics is lavishly illustrated. Some of the graphics are mostly eye candy supporting some phrase in the text, but there are plenty of pie charts and bar graphs for those who like to see their numbers in graphic rather than tabular form. The profusion of illustrations keeps the pages turning quickly. We found the closing section on Leadership and Employee Management a bit superfluous, but readers who have built up their enthusiasm for Hill’s approach through the rest of the book may find them interesting. Emotionomics is longer on pop psychology than neuroscience, though that doesn’t necessarily invalidate the conclusions reached from analyzing advertisements.

Overall, we can hardly argue with the basic premise of Emotionomics: people react emotionally to advertising and products, and trying to get them to accurately describe their feelings, explain their behavior, or predict future actions, with forms, surveys, and focus groups is a fool’s errand. The large number of examples illustrating the divide between stated and actual response to an ad or product, and the convincing explanations of why some products and ad campaigns worked and some didn’t, make Emotionomics a must-read for any marketer wanting a different set of insights into customer behavior.

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— who has written 956 posts on Neuromarketing.

Roger Dooley writes and speaks about marketing, and in particular the use of neuroscience and behavioral research to make advertising, marketing, and products better. He is the primary author at Neuromarketing, and founder of Dooley Direct LLC, a marketing consultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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