Mickey Mouse Measurement And The Goofy Illusion Of Perfection

27 07 2009

UPDATE 8/4/09: Good FORTUNE magazine article on “Advertising’s Revenge of The Nerds”.  Will the algorithms that were peddled on Wall Street to inflate the housing bubble wreak similar havoc on Madison Avenue? I wonder.


The Formula Herd has descended on Austin, Texas, Mickey Mouse ears and eye-tracking googles at the ready.

Their mission: find the holy grail for online advertising.


“The goal” says Disney Media Networks’ Peter Seymour, the unit’s executive vice president for strategy and research, “is ultimately to have laws that apply.”

And so, without irony, the company that brings us Disney Magic sets out to eradicate magic from advertising in favor of a formula.

As you can imagine, this is serious work: you can’t use just any old Mickey Mouse tools.

Besides the eye-tracking goggles, they have heart-rate monitors, and skin temperature readers and probes attached to facial muscles to measure every grin and grimace.

And so the holy war between art and science continues. We continue chasing the goofy illusion of perfection. goofy

I’m not anti-science, or anti-research.  And, I have no doubt that the Disney execs are entirely sincere in their desire to get at the truth and are genuinely trying to help.

But after more than half a century of TV research, we still don’t know in advance what makes TV commercials work.  In fact, the best research I have ever seen comes from Nielsen IAG. Their conclusion? Engagement (aka “executional magic”) is the best predictor of sales.

So much for formulas.

Heretical Prediction Of The Day

Yogi Berra famously said “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”.  In spite of this sage advice, here goes.

On the day when all interactive advertising is successfully refined to the point where there is 100% efficiency and 0% waste, we will learn something shocking.

We’ll discover that 0% waste means we end up advertising ONLY to those people who were going to buy the product anyway – which of course equals 100% waste.

Spoiler alert: no matter how hard we chase perfect understanding, we end up in the same place of not knowing.

It’s a Zen circle. The difference is this time, it’s a Zen circle with mouse ears 🙂




7 responses

28 07 2009
Jaffer Ali


What we do not know is actually MORE important than what we do know. Innovation springs from filling in the knowledge void. What really screws us up is believing we know things we really do not. Nice post..

28 07 2009

You think if they had tested the Wedding Dance viral video that dominated YouTube last week and made it to the Today Show that it would have predicted its success? Doubt it. You can’t always measure surprise, delight, unexpectedness or the ways in which we come across it.

28 07 2009

Edward, totally agree. Hollywood has been spent fruitless decades trying to figure out the “laws”, as has Madison Avenue.

What’s confusing for businesspeople is that predictability — in manufacturing, pricing, availability etcetera etcetera — is highly desirable for nearly everything in business. It’s what great operations people and CFOs live for.

But predictability in communications renders it dead on arrival.

29 07 2009
Domenico Tassone

Hi Tom,

I wouldn’t frame this as another art vs. science of advertising debate.

The bigger point being missed is the dicey methodology: 1) are people going to behave naturally in an artificial setting like this (data reliability) and 2) how long until the semi-local pool of professional focus group respondents is burned out (sample reliability).

Seiche Analytics

29 07 2009

Domenico, thanks for the comment. Great points about the methodology. The “science” has the faint odor of phrenology, and the worry about sample reliability is well-founded. On a related note, I’m concerned that almost any sort of research pulls from a polluted pool: I suspect we have created a set of semi-pro respondents who show up to everything and know exactly how to wring a nice second income out of the system.

18 08 2009

I’ve always believed that focus groups won’t help you create a perfect ad; but might stop you from creating a really bad one.

** Side note: If an ad is 100% efficient, it converts 100% of the time. Which means it wouldn’t be seen by anyone who’d already buy.

18 08 2009

Thanks, Jordan. In the past I would have agreed with you about focus groups. Today I believe that groups are too easily led by a single vocal respondent and prefer one-on-ones.

In theory I agree with your second point. But most advertising is aimed squarely at likely buyers, and this goes double online. I’m not sure I’d have the guts to suggest a media plan composed entirely of unlikely buyers, but it would be an interesting test 🙂

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