THE BLOG
10/11/2010 11:00 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Mind Games: The TV Ratings Rat Race

What do TV preseason forecasts, penis enhancement pills, and abstinence-only education have in common? Answer: They don't work. Regardless of your political or religious views on the effectiveness of virginity pledges, of your conviction that you can "add four inches" to your package with a pill or cream, or of your opinion on the reliability of marketing research, good 'ole fashioned analysis of success falls short in all three.

Recently, Fox dropped the ball with this new season's Lone Star, their big budget bonk, which despite sexy promos, full-spectrum marketing, and respectable actors, stumbled and tanked. These snafus happen in other business, too: 8 out of 10 products fail despite lengthy consumer analysis and testing. Truth is, traditional focus groups just aren't cutting it; what you answer to a moderator has little to do with your actual behavior when responding to a public health message, maneuvering a shopping cart down the aisle, or watching the next season of Glee instead of the hot new series about a cop with two wives. Humph.

I'm a psychologist; I spend a lot of time precariously tiptoeing and weaving my way through therapy sessions that slide between conscious and unconscious "content." We don't even know why we like certain things. (Hell, even Snooki's own dad can't figure out what we see in her. ) Even I, a careful consumer, find myself unpacking bags from Costco at home and wondering, what was I thinking? An 8-pound bag of pistachios? Or, even worse, why does my new "little black dress" that looks a lot like the others I own make me so darned happy?

Buying certainly is an emotional experience and is becoming more so. How and what you purchase is becoming exponentially more complicated: we contemplate being a "frugal" superpower, yet we become spendthrifts searching for happiness by indulging in "retail therapy" at the mall during lunchtime, and even jostling for position between shopping and sex. In therapy sessions, I know that the deepest unconscious thoughts come out in dreams, drawings, twitches, and slips of the tongue. What to some might seem a simple reflex act of choosing one bag of frozen peas over another, can be laden with issues of self-worth and nurturing that cannot be easily verbalized.

There's a lot of talk about neuromarketing being the future. Is it the answer? Perhaps. Fact is, we are already turning to fMRIs to make sense of things that once sounded hopelessly inexplicable--like love, autism, and road rage. Neuromarketing like that done by Buyology, One to One, and Innerscope might be able to explain why my plan to find a healthy, complex carb cereal box is derailed at the last moment by an impulse-buy of Coco Puffs (and I'm sure you can give me dozens of examples where you have done the same thing).

This type of technology ain't cheap. Donna Sturgess, President and founding partner of Buyology, Inc., and former Global Head of Innovation for GlaxoSmithKline, explains: "For decades, businesses have said 'If only I could look into the mind of my consumer to really understand why they watch what they watch, or buy what they buy.' We now have the technology for deeper insights from neuroscience to apply to business. It is widely accepted that 85% of consumer decision-making happens at the nonconscious or emotional level, which is where relationships reside. Yet networks aren't even looking at this before they invest millions into a new series, so it's not too surprising that shows keep falling flat. Neuromarketing is like a magic decoder of insights to give you true indication of what show has a better chance at success."

It's no surprise, then, that in working with consumers with dwindling impulse control and itchy trigger fingers, the future of next generation of marketing research will have to refocus its efforts in order to understand the unconscious motivations that exist in those crucial milliseconds that it takes to click a mouse button or swipe a credit card. The answer: Go long. Go deep. Into the unconscious. Stay tuned...

1. Set against the backdrop of greed and corruption in the Texas oil and power industries, Lone Star is a drama about a con man. Didn't watch it? Neither did I.
2. "It's very hard for me to see what it is. She don't sing. She don't dance."
New York Times, July 23, 2010.
3. A study from the University of Westminster has found that special offers make us so deliriously happy that the brain is turned on to the same level excitement that it gets from sex.