Using Neuromarketing for Animation: Good or Bad?

 Via: Fast Company

The other night, we watched the Morgan Spurlock documentary POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. It was an entertaining enough look at how products get into films and how studios use them to help pay for and promote them.

Interestingly enough, there was no explicit mention of animation. Not to say that it doesn’t go on of course. Pretty much every animated film contains promotion to some extent. Yes, the film itself is a form of ‘promotion’, it being the vehicle that drives all the ancillary sales of merchandise and DVDs. Need proof, look no further than the final Harry Potter film. It contains no advertising whatsoever apart from on, the Harry Potter itself.

However, one aspect of the films that I found most intriguing/disturbing, is the whole idea of neuromarketing. In the film, Spurlock is basically shoved into an MRI and shown images of products. During the analysis afterwards, he is shown how his brain reacted when shown an advert for Coca-Cola: it released hormones that indicated he wanted the Coke.

As scary as that may sound, its been known about for years. What is not so well known, is that movie studios use it to perfect their product before releasing it. In the course of the documentary, we see Spurlock having a look at the schedule for the day of the neuroanalysis firm he visited. The film right before his: Toy Story 3.

Now you might say to yourself “But Charles, Toy Story 3 had an emotional story to begin with!” Well, yes, it does. However keep in mind that even stories can be analysed to make sure they extract the right emotions from the audience. Fast Company discussed the practice back in February when they took a look at the rise of “neurocinema” and how it is likely to affect future films.

Animation is not immune as this quote regarding Rango from Steve Sands, head of neuroanalysis firm Sands Research demonstrates:

Often animation can be more engaging for the brain than real actors. Look at the strong response to Avatar,

And check out the image below that shows brain activity while watching the trailer for Rango.

 Via: Fast Company

The downside to all of this? Well for one, now you know that the opening montage in UP was nothing more than a tightly crafted, artificial play on your emotions. There was no need for skill in the writer’s room because the data told them exactly what they needed to do in order for you to well up. Michael Barrier hits it right on the head when he calls it “emotional manipulation” because that’s exactly what it is. The images flashing before you were specifically and intentionally made to engage your emotions. You just can’t help it!

Now, you could argue that that is the case with any such scene in any movie. Films are supposed to engage emotions after all, that’s why you watch them. However, Mike nails it again when he compares UP to Dumbo (emphasis mine):

The difference between, say, the opening sequence in Up and Dumbo’s reunion with his mother can be summed up in one word, the old Disney shibboleth “sincerity”.

Why rely on your own or your team’s judgement when you can just do a neuroanalysis and have the data tell you exactly what you need to do. That’s not filmmaking, it’s sheer laziness and insincere because the emotions are not meant, they’re demanded. Major studios would rather have it that way though, because if you’re going to cough up $300 million on film, it had better perform as expected, and the data never lies*.

Will this result in better films? Meh. However I would much rather see a film that allowed me to control my own emotions rather than having them dictated to me. It’s practically cheating with your film and nobody likes a cheat.

*Garbage In Garbage Out applies but it’s safe to say that the marketing firm knows what it’s doing.

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