Scary Idea: Forget Focus Groups


In the last week, a lot of press attention was devoted to the use of brain scans to optimize the fear factor in horror movies. As CNN reported,

Film producer Peter Katz doesn’t just want his horror movies to scare you. He wants to pinpoint how frightened you are down to an exact moment in a scene.

To do that, he recently teamed up with researchers and used MRI scans of brain function to determine the degree of fright caused by certain scenes from his latest horror flick, “Pop Skull.”

For the experiment, researchers at functional MRI research facility Mindsign Neuromarketing, based in San Diego, California, scanned the brain activity of a subject while she watched two scenes of his movie. Analyzing the data from the scan, they were able to pinpoint the exact moments when her brain was lit up with fear. [From - Brain scans gauge horror flick fear factor by Grace Wong.]

While most of the press coverage focused on the idea that movies might no longer be driven by the artistic vision of the director, I think there are two big stories here that got very little attention.

Focus Group Failure

The stories mention that brain scans are less convenient and more expensive than traditional focus groups for gauging audience reaction to a movie. The real story is that focus groups are simply incapable of providing the kind of specific and accurate feedback that we see by measuring brain activity and biometrics in real time. Focus groups may still have a purpose, but gauging how scary particular elements of a film are isn’t one of them.

Indeed, there are many points of failure for traditional focus groups. People may not say what they really think for a variety of reasons. Even when they try to be totally honest, people may not be able to articulate their experiences, rationales, or intentions.

Product Improvement

The other thing I like about this story is that neuromarketing technology is being employed not for optimizing an advertisement but rather for improving the product itself. One can certainly argue whether audience feedback, however obtained, “improves” movies… but in this case, the effect the director is looking for is fear, and the brain scan technology is simply a tool he can use to optimize the way the movie sparks that emotion.

Instead of better product ads, why not create better products?

(Image by Shutterstock)


This post was written by:

— who has written 985 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 "Scary Idea: Forget Focus Groups" — Your Turn


Frank 6. October 2009 at 6:10 am

The emotion fear depends upon how fearfull a person is thus it is hard to measure anyway.
Secondly, the failure or succes of a scary movie does not entirely depend upon creating scary scenes but more on building an enganging story in which the audience relates to the characters ( and thus emotionally attach themselfes ).


Scott Lovingood
Twitter: scottlovingood
6. October 2009 at 10:26 pm

I love the idea of using the scans to create better products. If we could truly understand what drives the excitement in the client, we could focus on the items that deliver a greater bang for the buck.

Focus groups are and have been a lousy way to get feedback. They generally give you one person’s viewpoint as the group follows the stronger personalities lead.

Trying to find out what a person liked and wants more of is one of the toughest things to do.

Now if we could do real time moving MRIs for just a few dollars. :)


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