Back in March, the Watching the Trailer team (Fred Greene, Keith M. Johnston, and Ed Vollans) travelled to Montreal for the Society of Cinema & Media Studies (SCMS) annual conference. As well as meeting new and old friends in the trailer/promotional studies scene, we were there to present a series of (inter-related) papers on our ongoing audience research project.
Given we can’t share the physical presentations with you, here’s the next best thing: the second in our series of blog posts that consider specific aspects of those papers. The second of these is Ed’s consideration of the role of neuroscience in understanding the trailer.
There is a difference between experiencing, and recalling.
Early academic studies of the trailer-audience interaction focused on audience surveys and questionnaires. Historical and Contemporary industry studies exist but gaining access to these is extremely difficult and such studies tend to be focused on specific movies (e.g. 'did you like this joke here?', or 'what did you think of that character there'). While the available academic work is scattered through a history of scholarly interest in the trailer (as we’ve talked about here), more recent studies of the trailer have begun to explore the physical and biological responses to trailers.
This new trend, if we can call it that, is typified by the work of Dr Steve Quartz, who has been widely reported (also here, and here) to be ‘optimising’ movie trailers, based on MRI readings of subjects watching trailers. Similarly, work by Iida (2012) and Yanagisawa (2014) has focused on GSR galvanic skin responses (measurements of the chemicals in the skin, often coupled with heart rate monitors) to assess the experience of trailers. Consider some of the broad findings made available by this research*;
- Iida (2012), authors suggest a specific mode of trailer creation that maximises GRS output.
- Yanagisawa (2014), authors identified elements of a movie trailer that ‘increased the viewers’ desire to watch the target movie’.
* (These papers are truly fascinating, if you get the chance to read these please do, we'd love to hear your thoughts).
Across these studies then, the issue of ‘optimisation’ is very much present; this notion that certain elements that elicit biological responses in the audience can be collected together to create an improved or 'most appealing' trailer. This concept is fascinating to me purely because of the implications this may have on the creative processes of trailer production, and the kinds of audience reception it may elicit audiences found out they were watching an 'optimal' trailer.
More importantly (for me at least) there is the issue of reconciling the conscious with the subconscious. Here, the emphasis on subconscious biological responses fails to take into account additional environmental factors. Work by Topolinski (2013) albeit not focused on trailers, has for instance, suggest that eating popcorn and chewing gum reduced the effectiveness of advertising in persuading audiences to purchase products. This kind of environmental factor during viewing is wholly absent from subconscious studies that provide an artificial environment for viewing; putting willing participants in an MRI machine for example is not my average cinema going experience (If this is how you normally watch them, please let us know; here).
What is clear is the difficulty in translating biological responses to stimuli (say, jumping at loud noises, or sweating) to the consumer experience; ‘I really want to go and see that movie’, or ‘I hated that’. We know that for many people a really scary experience can be actively sought, forming a kind of paradox, conveniently illustrated by the audience in this trailer...
Certainly such biological data will converge with the viewer experience, but without widespread understanding of the conscious audience experience, such subconscious data has limited transferability. In part because of the limitations of biological assessment in terms of participants and viewing context, and in part because of the absence of co-ordinated research that maps the social and cultural implications of trailer consumption.
So clearly I’m coming down on the side of conscious responses as a way of gathering data. Considering conscious responses allows for a better understanding of the way in which the trailer experience manifests itself in popular culture: primarily through talk. Yet given the nature of cinema, we can only ever gather that data from audiences after they have experienced it, and so we’re always asking not what you felt or experienced at the time, but instead what do you think or remember you experienced- which isn’t quite the same thing - as anyone who knows of this image will be able to tell you...
Consider that of the first WtT survey respondents, the majority either discussed the trailer with friends, or shared the trailer in some way, suggesting that the role of interpersonal communication is still a vital element of it's consumption and one that may impact upon the audience experience. Given that the majority of participants in the first WtT survey suggested they were actively seeking out trailers at some time, rather than being passive recipients, it seems clear to me that before we can start to pull together the conscious with the subconscious we need to use the conscious as a frame of reference.