The robots are watching our commercials 🤖. No, this isn’t the premise for the lamest sci-fi flick of all time. But machine learning just might be the future of commercial testing.
Kantar, a company that measures audience insights through tests and surveys, has a tool it claims can predict and dissect how consumers will react to a commercial—all powered through artificial intelligence.
Link AI made its debut in 2020, and it’s already been used by Google, Coke, and Unilever (among at least 15 other clients, including creative agencies) to fine-tune creative campaigns.
This type of work is typically done by good old-fashioned people, asked to take a survey or join a focus group. When advertisers want to test ads before they’re ready, the process is called “copy testing,” which qualitatively gauges the impact of an ad (What did you like about this Trix ad?) and quantitatively measures how audiences respond to an ad (On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely are you to switch from Fruity Pebbles to Trix?).
Now, Kantar thinks Link AI could replace both tactics.
Here’s how it works:
The AI is built upon nearly 230,000 advertisements (half of them for insurance companies. We’re kidding…), and the audience reactions Kantar’s been collecting since the early 1990s.
- Clients upload their creative to Link AI’s self-service portal—most test a standard 15- to 30-second spot.
- The machine breaks down a commercial’s visual features, audio, and on-screen text, then compares the ad against its library of advertisements.
Within 15 minutes, Link AI will spit out a prediction based on the industry’s most common KPIs: How persuadable was the ad? Was it enjoyable? How might it impact short-term sales? All responses are based on Kantar’s historical advertising data.
More specifically, a 2004 Cheetos ad can inform how a 2021 Bud Light commercial might land without the hassle of polling real audiences, which can cost at least a few thousand dollars, according to Dinesh Gopinath, head of product and data strategy at Kantar.
“If you think about a survey, it takes time to [show] an ad to 150 respondents—it takes two to three days, you pull them together into a database. This happens in a matter of ten minutes,” Gopinath told Marketing Brew.
Kantar hopes Link AI will be folded into a brand’s creative strategy, letting it upload multiple edits of a commercial (different scenes, different background music) to see how each performs.
- Kantar trains and calibrates Link AI against audience research it still collects as part of its survey business.
- It charges clients either a monthly subscription fee or per campaign bundle, based on the amount of ads processed. The company declined to talk pricing.
- In early October, Kantar is launching another product called Digital Video AI, which is essentially the same thing, but for shorter videos—like ads you might see on YouTube.
Whether it’s done via humans or robot overlords, testing can only get a brand so far. It’s anyone’s guess as to how a commercial will fare once it’s in the wild.
“Marketers are looking to predict a hit and avoid a disaster before they make a significant investment,” said Elizabeth Paul, chief strategy officer at The Martin Agency, who hasn’t worked with Kantar’s Link AI, but does have some clients who copy-test. “I’ve never worked with a copy test company that does not promise that their work is predictive. They all have a black-box methodology they swear correlates to sales results in the market and that’s a really alluring promise.”
But, but, but: These types of services still can’t replicate a real-world environment that people are watching an ad in, like during the Super Bowl.
“The challenge you hear from creatives is that copy-testing can lead to paint by number creative,” said Paul, pointing out that Geico—a longtime Martin Agency client famous for its sense of humor—doesn’t copy-test.
But good scores are comforting, especially when your job is on the line. “In a time where a lot of CMOs jobs are threatened, a green-light test score feels like a paper shield,” she said.
Link AI isn’t bulletproof either: Because its predictions are based off of commercials that go as far back as the 90s, the impact of a more recent celebrity (say, Billie Eilish) might not be recognized by the machine and thus won’t kick out a properly gauged response.
And though Kantar’s had some Super Bowl clients test Link AI (although the company didn’t mention names), Gopinath doesn’t expect those high-profile advertisers to choose Link AI over old-fashioned testing when it comes to the game considering they pay north of $6 million for a mere 30 seconds of ad time.
“The machine is good enough to do it. But I can imagine most clients saying, ‘I’m putting so much money behind this, and it’s seen by 110 million people,’ he said, explaining that they’ll likely opt for “the process which provides them confidence.”
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