Facial Coding

faceWhen we wrote our recent review of Emotionomics: Winning Hearts and Minds by Dan Hill, our interest in facial coding was sparked. Or, perhaps, re-sparked; when we read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, we found his discussion of facial coding to be quite intriguing. Simply put, the concept of facial coding is that we reveal our emotions by our facial expressions. Particularly in some social settings, we may seek to conceal these, but the underlying emotion we experience still registers on our face, even as a brief micro-expression. So, when your mother-in-law passes you an unpalatable slab of mystery meat, you may smile and say, “Thanks, it looks delicious!” Facial coding experts, though, say you would probably register a brief disgust reaction even as you take pains to avoid being rude.

If this is true, it would be handy information for marketers and market researchers. Surveys and focus groups often fail to accurately predict the success of an ad or a product in the marketplace. Being able to gauge the true reaction of individuals would be extremely useful, to say the least. That’s what Dan Hill says his firm, Sensory Logic, actually does – analyze fleeting facial expressions while subjects view products, print ads, television commercials, and so on, in order to determine their real reaction.

But does facial coding actually work? Let’s start by looking at the history of the topic. Believe it or not, the concept that we reveal our true emotions in our facial expressions was put forth by none other than Charles Darwin. The famed evolutionist wrote The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals in 1872, and suggested that mammals revealed their emotions in their faces. The topic didn’t get a lot of attention until the 1960s, when Paul Ekman, now professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, began travelling to other nations to see if at least some facial expressions were universal across geography and cultures. He found that individuals from distant cultures did correctly interpret expressions on photos from other groups.

Eventually, Ekman and Wallace Friesen, also of UCSF, created the Facial Action Coding System (FACS). Published in 1978, FACS was based on combinations of 43 unique facial muscle positions which yielded thousands of expressions. Ekman also noticed that sometimes emotions were fleeting, resulting in “microexpressions.” These were more readily observed when a slow-motion tape of a subject’s face was played back, but a trained individual could also observe them in real time. Since that time, facial coding has hardly taken off as an academic discipline. It seems that more interest has come from law enforcement and, more recently, anti-terrorism agencies. Interrogators have been trained to identify and interpret the expressions of subjects being interviewed, principally to determine if the subject is lying.

Over the years, Ekman and fellow researchers have further extended their work on facial coding, and even produced tools to help others develop facial coding skills (see links below).

Neuromarketing readers are probably most interested in the marketing applications of this technique, and it seems the main proponent of marketing use is Dan Hill, author of the aforementioned Emotionomics. Hill’s firm, Sensory Logic, Inc., uses facial coding and related techniques to analyze customer reactions to advertisements, products, etc. The book describes many real-life example of how the firm has used facial coding to choose between ad versions, determine why ad campaigns failed to perform as expected, evaluate reactions to proposed product features, etc.

Despite the apparently extensive body of work performed by Sensory Logic, facial coding hasn’t yet become widely accepted. Like fMRI scans and other neuromarketing technologies, facial coding seems to be still on the fringe of commonly used and accepted marketing practices. If Hill’s new book becomes popular, perhaps that will change.

Facial Coding Resources

Scientific American Mind: A Look Tells All [ SPECIAL REPORT: THE BODY SPEAKS ]
A person’s face will always reveal his true feelings–if, like Paul Ekman, you are quick enough to recognize microexpressions

The Naked Face
Subtitled “Can you read people’s thoughts just by looking at them?”, this Malcom Gladwell article appeared in The New Yorker

Sensory Logic
Firm uses facial coding techniques in market research.

Our review of Emotionomics: Winning Hearts and Minds by Dan Hill.

Paul Ekman
Website of Paul Ekman, professor emeritus at UCSF and leader in facial coding research.

Facial Coding Instruction
PC software that claims to teach one to recognize microexpressions and facial muscle patterns indicating emotions.

DataFace Website
Site has resources related to understanding facial coding and the Facial Action Coding System (FACS).


This post was written by:

— who has written 955 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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2 responses to "Facial Coding" — Your Turn


Daniel Mejia 15. August 2007 at 10:17 am

Hi, I have been reading your blog for a while. I find very interesting your recent posts about Facial Coding. Id like to link you to a project called Artnatomy (http://www.artnatomia.net/uk/artnatomy.html) that its a very interesting tool to learn to recognize those facial expressions.


Kim Kingsbury 11. March 2011 at 10:44 am

Hi Roger,

They have been trying to automate Facial Coding (FC) for 4 years now. Haven’t heard they managed to complete yet but when they do it will push the price level down quite a bit. Also have a look at http://www.mindmetic.com. These guys are from Denmark and what they are doing is actually selling the software and hardware to customers so that they can take tests themselves at their own location and all they have to do is buy a license or pay a fee per participant to have the data analyzed. They just released it and are building parameters, and although I have visited them I am not completely sure anymore what they use. I think it was a combination of GSR, Eye Tracking and FC. This could also open up the market to cheaper and more efficient marketing research.


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3 responses to "Facial Coding" — Your Turn