Biometrics at the Super Bowl: Facial Recognition and Emotional Advertising

February 3, 2014 – by Peter B. Counter     

Super Bowl Sunday is not just about sports. Sure, it is a day focused around the final game of the NFL season, taking the two best teams in the league and pitting them against each other in an all-or-nothing test of strength, speed coordination, strategy, tactics, endurance and teamsmanship, but in the end a lot more went into yesterday’s football game than two teams of men and their coaches. For years the Super Bowl has been among the most watched television broadcasts, and what that means in marketing is money.

Interestingly, the marketing aspect of the big game also means that Super Bowl Sunday is a place for biometric applications. According to Innerscope Research, an integrated consumer neuroscience firm, the ads in yesterday’s football game were more effective than they have been historically thanks to their appealing to viewer emotions in lieu of the traditional targets of sex appeal and cheap laughs. The firm knows this because of a focus group of 80 participants from Boston and New York had their facial expressions and vital biometric measured for the duration of the game, with special attention paid to the time spent watching commercials.

What did Innerscope discover by diligently monitoring the heart rate, skin conductivity, smiles and breathing patterns of its sports-loving guinea pigs? Emotion sells better than sex, and in a disappointing game, it wasn’t just the Broncos and their fans that suffered.

The number one most response pulling ad was the Steven Colbert starring Wonderful Pistachios ad, which though having significant star power was filled with enough whimsy and joy to give it the Colbert bump all the way to the top of the most enjoyed commercial of the night. Beyond that though, only one other celebrity focused ad made the top ten list, the rest were cleverly written and directed emotional appeals for sympathy and compassion.

The participants were videotaped in association with Emotient, whose flagship solution, FACET SDK – a facial expression recognition and analysis software – was able to measure expressions ranging from the simple (joy, fear, surprise, etc.) to the more complex and therefore more useful to advertisers and marketing teams (confusion, frustration).

This sort of study is indicative of a novel and important application for biometrics. The ability to measure the effectiveness and viewer connection that a TV spot has is invaluable in an age where broadcast media has to contend with the analytics that its web based competitors can boast.

The study revealed that viewers were more responsive to advertising aired in the first half of what would turn out to be a lackluster game from the very first play. This is incredibly useful information for broadcasters looking to better monetize commercial slots. For the marketers, it is going to mean interesting strategy meeting next year around this time when they need to come up with the best advertising play they can at the bottom of the fourth quarter.

Facial recognition of this kind is also on the way to videogame consoles, with developers exploring ways to tailor in game experiences to the real-time emotions of its players. This is great news for any Broncos fan trying to play an alternate reality version of last night’s game on her Xbox One, a game system that can tell she doesn’t want to see Peyton Manning miss the snap and give way to a safety in the first play.