Automated Facial Coding in the Field of Neuromarketing

Automated facial coding in the field of neuromarketing

Monday, 17 March, 2014

By Peter Lewinski - Many would agree that speaking in front of 250 senior-level industry and academia leaders from +30 countries can be a breakthrough for any career in the young field of neuromarketing. However, I think it is even cooler when you get a chance to mingle with the board members, professors, start-up founders and all the people that do the cutting-edge work with the instant visibility of the award-recipient.

At the Neuromarketing World Forum (NMWF) - the annual conference of the Neuromarketing Science & Business Association (NMSBA) - I got a chance to do both, and much more.

Neuromarketing World Forum, New York City (5-7 March 2014)


On March 6, as one of three Neurotalent of the Year award recipients, I was going to

“pitch your work on the main stage of the Neuromarketing World Forum. Yes, the main stage. The audience consists of Neuromarketing Industry, Consultants, CMO’s of brands, Audience Researchers Broadcasters and Scientists.”
(an official communication from NMSBA Director to us)

If you ever received a similar email, you know that it sounds awesome and scary at the same time. In order to prepare us for our pitches Prof. Rafal Ohme held a short workshop on Tuesday, March 4 on how to present to a diverse and high-profile audience. Obviously, afterwards the three of us rushed off to polish up our presentations and to change a few slides. On that same evening we all went to the opening reception to meet with NMSBA members and the attendees of the Forum. For a quarter of an hour, I got to talk with Steve Genco, PhD - a lead author of Neuromarketing for Dummies (Wiley, 2013). It turned out that Steve did a thorough review of what is going on in the field and I think the book is a good starting point for anyone interested in neuromarketing. All the attendees of the Forum got a complimentary copy and I even got the book signed.

The next day on Wednesday we could choose between  the pre-conference seminar "Introduction to Neuromarketing" or a round-table discussion for the industry leaders. I picked the introduction seminar because Steve Genco taught it and basically gave a quick overview of his book. I figured that instead of feeling complied to read the book I could just listen in for a few hours.

Looking back at the seminar I liked the comparison table of different neuromarketing methods, its strengths and weaknesses, costs and expertise required to use them. Facial coding was classified as quite cost-efficient and not so difficult to set-up in comparison to e.g. eye-tracking or fMRI.I found it quite useful to learn where the facial coding is positioned across different methods in the field. Last three hours were devoted to case-studies of Decode Marketing, Ltd., Sands Research and Neurons, Inc. and a Q&A session.

Neuromarketing in Emerging Markets

In the evening we went for another networking dinner. Through informal conversations I gathered that neuromarketing was especially strong in USA, Europe, and South America. Actually, South American countries were well represented throughout the entire Forum. 

Companies from South America seem to prefer cost-efficient solutions such as behavioral measures, facial coding, and EEG instead of more expensive methods such as eye-tracking and fMRI. I like facial coding because it is not expensive to use and it has potential to become ubiquitous and used all over the world, not only in developed economies which is the case for more expensive techniques. As I'm originally from Poland, I can see how difficult it is to find funding for a full-blown neuroscience lab. Nevertheless, on that Wednesday evening I went back to the hotel earlier to practice my presentation and prepare for the next day.

Pitching the Idea

On Thursday I woke up early to practice a bit more. The pitch I had to deliver at noon was only 5 minutes long but I really wanted to get people excited about automated facial coding so I practiced ruthlessly. The presentation went just fine, I even managed to squeeze two videos showing “past” with manual coding and “today & future” with automated coding. I knew that the audience was quite familiar with today´s techniques but I wanted to make sure they appreciated as much as I do what a long way we came from the '70s to 2014.

Neuromarketing world forum

My presentation got some people thinking of the advantages (and disadvantages) of facial coding and prepared the way for mildly heated discussion on Twitter the same and next day (check @PeterLewinski and #NMWF).

During the entire Forum I had this fancy SPEAKER insignia with my name on it so people recognized me before and after the talk as one of the Neurotalents. There were rather few people who looked so young and had such a badge. I think the simple red ribbon gave us - the junior researchers - more confidence to enter into dialogue with the professors, senior-level managers, and C-suite executives from leading neuromarketing companies.

Future of Facial Coding

At the event, I looked forward mostly to two talks – by Affectiva´s CSO on Thursday and Realeyes´s CEO on Friday. Both are young startups - with around 50 employees each - that investigate how to optimize ad effectiveness using automated facial coding. Now, I firmly believe that the facial coding for industry purposes is at least two years ahead of the academic research - after listening to these two presentations and some behind-the-scenes conversations during the breaks. I suppose academic researchers are more interested in the psychological processes that explain the consumers´ reactions to the persuasive stimuli and not the ads themselves. Personally, I am happy to see that the field of emotion sensing from the face has 3-5 small-medium enterprises that either exclusively do facial coding or combine it with some other biometric measures. From my reconnaissance it seems that the next big development will be a working model of remote heart beat estimation; a few teams are working on it.

Either way, the field seems to be abruptly emerging with the companies growing in number of employees and the datasets they manage. I hope and sense that the academicians will soon move into publishing and validating those very applied facial coding methods as many neuromarketers express such need. Though, I still think such efforts are somehow problematic because the facial coding algorithms practically change on a daily basis and there is some breakthrough to the method every half a year or so. The technology is so disruptive that it seems to outpace the usual development circles and hence the academicians’ ability to thoroughly test it.

What's Next?

As to confirm my observation that Spanish is important in the neuromarketing industry, the next host of the NMSBA Neuromarketing World Forum will be held in Barcelona, Spain in March 2015. If you are Europe-based I encourage you to not miss this opportunity to see and learn how scientific insights are developed into full-fledged business ideas and p.s. learn some Spanish.

In February 2014, I received an email where the NMSBA and NEUROHME picked me and 2 other graduate students to be recipients of their annual “Neurotalent of the Year” award. With the award and the recognition of the work in the neuromarketing field came a complimentary full ticket (worth €2000) to the Forum. As much as I was excited to go I also realized that in just one month I had to find travel support to go New York City. In the end, the Marie Curie fellowship, Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR) support and Noldus Information Technology's travel scholarship helped me buy the ticket and book the hotels. Also the work, which I did prior to the reception of the award, would not be possible without ongoing support from my supervisors and colleagues from ASCoR, Vicarious Perception Technologies and Noldus IT. Thank you.

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Peter Lewinski is a Research Fellow (Marie Curie) at University of Amsterdam and Vicarious Perception Technologies B.V. His work focuses on facial coding, advertising and consumer behavior.