The importance of context

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Blinded by science

We recently had a special guest speaker here at Bottle who spoke about using neuroscience to evaluate big advertising campaigns. We were shown some pretty amazing stuff that used eye-tracking and the monitoring of brain activity to assess whether something like a TV commercial holds people’s attention and whether they comprehend the messaging.

The theory being that, what people say and what people think and do are often quite different. By using biometrics, we can bypass this misinformation and get straight to what people really think.

It makes a lot of sense but it misses out one important thing: context.

Being remarkable

Let’s say you go a heavy metal music festival. Picture yourself in a sunny field surrounded by long-haired, tattooed people having a great time, rocking out to their favourite bands. It’s loud, the bands are destroying their amps and guitars and then, at 6pm, an 8 year old girl comes onto the stage and plays solo covers of heavy metal tunes on the violin. Some of the crowd hate it and walk away but some of the crowd are drawn in, they listen to the music and enjoy it in a way they thought they never could.

Whether or not festival goers liked the violinist, they’re going to come away and say “There was this really weird bit when a girl with a violin took to the stage.” – it was something remarkable, literally something worth talking about and that’s valuable to companies who are competing for attention.

Had the festival-goers passed the same violinist on the tube the week before, they’ve have likely completely ignored her. Context is everything.

Getting context wrong

In the UK, the comedian Michael Mcintyre is very popular. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea but I’d bet that if you showed one of his routines to a sample of the population and tracked their brain activity, he’d elicit some pretty positive results.

Let’s say he did the exact same routine halfway through a funeral. I suspect he’d get a rather frosty reception.

His routine didn’t change and the scientific measurements taken from the brain monitoring told us that most people would like his comedy but poor Michael just died at a funeral.

Using our brains

The science isn’t yet good enough for us to trust algorithms to make decisions on creativity. I’m pretty sure that in the future, we’ll get better at this and biometric evaluation will perhaps be combined with social media and the internet to allow us to evaluate context  – we’re just not there quite yet.

In the meantime, creativity is always going to be a gamble. There’s no science to it and no right answers – all we have is trial and error. Trusting creative planning to experienced creatives who have learnt from their past mistakes doesn’t guarantee success but it’s the best we have for now.

BlogColin Cather