Saturday, December 31, 2005

Quick New Year's Update

The Communication & Cognition lab moved another step forward today as my father and I installed the hardware necessary to synchronize the stimulus computer and the physiology equipment. Now we can embed audio tones in the stimulus television clips that trigger events (such as the startle probe) through the physiological equipment with as close to millisecond accuracy as we can measure.

This time last year Rob Potter and I were going through similar steps in Rob's lab in order to get my second dissertation experiment running. It's getting close! Happy New Year to all.

Why Didn't I think of This?

Darn. It should have occurred to me.

The Million Dollar Homepage.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Recliner Signals Major Lab Progress

Regular readers are aware that I have been searching many months for a black vinyl recliner for the lab. In short, the recliners on the market have been too high quality. I wanted thick black vinyl that would be resistant to punctures, stains, and static electricity.

A recent trip to Value City Furniture had me reduced to paying $299 for a thin -- but elegant recliner. However, on a lark, I stopped by Big Lots Furniture today. Not only did they have the perfect recliner, but they were going out of business, so I got it for half off -- a mere $125.

The chair has been purchased and moved to the lab, as we jump one step closer to actual data collection.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Art and Science of Communication

Communication consists of equal parts art and science. I spend much time examining the science side. We can tell you what structural features to use to make your message more effective, but we cannot yet write a computer program to write that message for you.

This is one of the many things that makes communication wonderful. As a former reporter, I can tell you that the writing part is an art. As someone who occasionally teaches writing at the collegiate level, I can assure you that it is an art (and that some people are colorblind).

Along these lines, here is an interesting posting on Ad Age's Small agency Weblog about the time required for an idea to ferment.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

World Not in Need of 6-Blade Razor

Seriously, people, when is the razor arms race going to end?

CINCINNATI ( -- The extra-large launch of Gillette's six-bladed Fusion shaving system will kick off, fittingly, with advertising on Super Bowl XL, according to a retail executive briefed on the plans.

A Super Bowl introduction for Fusion has been subject of much speculation given timing of the estimated $200 million launch, which will have products hitting stores just in time for the big game Feb. 5. But Gillette executives have been mum on details of the critical Fusion launch, including when ads would break.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

We Smile Only for the Punchline

Here is a quick update to the posting about the kids swearing in the commercial.

Although the self-reported valence measure showed changes over time, when I measured electrical activity over the muscles involved in smiling, these participants smiled only after the punchline was delivered: "Ever run out of soap?"

Much formal analysis remains; however, this continues to be an interesting project.

Friday, December 23, 2005

We Watch South Park for Arousal

UPDATED 4:23 p.m.

I would come out of my office at the NMSU student newspaper and look up to see South Park on the newsroom television. I didn't get it. I didn't have time. Wednesday night was production night, as we published on Mondays and Thursdays. If memory served, we had to be to the printer by midnight, and I was always on deadline.

Two years later I found myself working on the copy desk at the Albuquerque Journal. South Park was the water cooler conversation piece on that desk, and I became a regular viewer. For some reason, children swearing is hilarious. Perhaps (i.e., likely) I am just demented.

Fast forward almost a decade, and I find myself to be a scientist studying emotion, attention, and memory with respect to mediated messages -- usually television. As outlined previously, I am currently investigating psychophysiological responses to humorous television commercials.

On Thursday I worked on skin conductance level. There are some interesting patterns in the data, but one ad struck me in particular.

The ad is for a now-defunct dot com company called The company allowed you to order ordinary -- basic -- household items over the Internet.

In this commercial, a young boy and girl play together (I am guessing both are somewhere around 10 years old) on the living room floor while their mom talks on the phone. The boy and girl then begin fighting over a toy and calling each other names. It starts with "dog breath" and "freakazoid" but then moves too "you're going to break it you jack-BLEEP" and "give me it you freakin' mother f-BLEEP-er" and "you stupid son of a BLEEP-ch."

Tacky and low-brow to be sure, but it is quite funny. The swearing starts in earnest about 10 seconds into the commercial. Now keep in mind that skin conductance is largely measuring activity of the eccrine sweat glands in the palm of these participants' hands. This means a few seconds elapse before skin conductance responds to an arousing stimuli.

For a fun comparison, here is the continuous response measurement for the same advertisement from a different group of participants. They were rating positive or negative where positive is up.

Returning to skin conductance, note the dramatic and sustained level following the onset of the swearing and fighting. Compare this with the slow-paced AGFA camera ad.

This illustrates that children swearing not only generates laughter, but it also generates arousal. And despite the normative declarations we might make about too much sex and violence on TV, we are arousal junkies nonetheless.

The ad concludes with the line "Ever run out of soap?" suggesting that the dumbfounded mother will be washing their mouths out. Hence the tie back to Although the ad appears to be effective, it was not effective enough, as the company did not survive the dot com burst. It's not really fair to blame that on the ad, however. The business model of selling really inexpensive items over the Internet appears to have been the fatal flaw.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Skin Conductance Less Telling for Camera Ad

For the sake of comparison, here is the average skin conductance (an indicator of physiological arousal) for the same 49 subjects during the same 30 second AGFA camera ad. Although you can see activity at the same points, it is slight.

Sustained Deceleration During Humorous Ads

Here is a brief update to show the cardiac response curve averaged over 10 humorous ads. The curve is marked by an orienting reflex to the beginning of the commercial, and then a sustained deceleration across viewing, which suggests that these commercials were effective in maintaining viewer attention.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Your Heart Likes Funny Commercials

Annie Lang wrote a chapter in her book titled "What can the heart tell us about thinking?" It can tell us a lot. In brief, in a properly controlled environment, the rate at which the heart beats can tell us something about attention paid to a media message.

One of my ongoing projects involves looking at cardiac response to humorous ads. In most of our research, we use several examples from a particular type of message. So, we might have participants watch 5 humorous ads and 5 boring ads. We typically look for messages of the same length -- say 30 seconds. So to compare these conditions, we average responses across the 5 messages in each condition.

This gives us more ability to generalize to that condition, but it loses the detailed responding to the features of an individual message. In this exploratory project, I am looking at responses to individual messages. In one such message, a stereotypical "nerd" is playing in the ocean in water about halfway up his torso. He runs across three attractive young women in bikinis. They decide to tease the nerd by taking off their bikini bottoms under water. Then you hear a click that is clearly a camera shutter as the girls wave the bikini bottoms in the air. The girls become embarrassed, and the nerd pulls a waterproof camera out of the water. The announcer says, "For things you'll only see once in a lifetime. The waterproof disposable camera from AGFA."

The cool thing -- to me -- is that your heart perfectly registers these humorous events. Here is an approximation of a storyboard for key events:

About 0:14 into commercial

About 0:23 into commercial

About 0:25 into commercial

Here is the cardiac response curve plotted across seconds:

This is a nice demonstration of the correspondence between cognitive perception of television and cardiac responding. You can clearly see that these 49 participants registered the humorous events, and there is a sustained deceleration after the camera is revealed, which is the punchline of the humorous ad. This should be associated with maximum attention, and it is in this period of deceleration that the slogan and brand name are delivered. This looks like a recipe for advertising success.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Turns Out We Like Ourselves

My project of collecting brand attitudes revealed something interesting -- and egocentric -- about the way we relate to advertised brands. Several of my friends and colleagues volunteered their time and responded to the brand attitude scales.

And although this is just a thought exercise, some interesting patterns appeared. Dating back to 1957, researchers have employed the semantic differential to assess how meaning is represented. Without being overly technical here, you can ask people to indicate their perception of a given thing X by choosing a point between a pair of adjectives (e.g., good _:_:_:_:_:_:_ bad). Osgood et al. asked 50 such pairs. I used 30. Then you can use a statistical technique called factor analysis to find a smaller number of orthogonal dimensions (i.e., roughly speaking this means they are not correlated). That is, you can examine whether 30 unique factors drive the responses, or a smaller number.

Not surprisingly, in many, many studies, a common factor appears to drive responses to similar adjective pairs such as good-bad and pleasant-unpleasant. Furthermore, many studies have shown that a different, uncorrelated factor drives responses to adjective pairs such as arousing-calm and active-passive. Finally another factor typically emerges that captures responding to pairs such as in control-out of control. Osgood et al. (1957) labeled these dimensions evaluation, activity, and potency. As mentioned here before, we call them valence, arousal, and dominance.

These three dimensions have captured the pattern of responses to numerous types of stimuli. My simple question is whether these dimensions apply to brands. In short, they appear to. But a far more interesting finding emerged from this thought exercise. In addition to the traditional semantic differentials, I included measures of "identification" such as mine-other's and like me-not like me. What drives these responses?

Although I expected the identification responses to be correlated with the valence measures (i.e., similar to me is a good thing), I was nonetheless surprised by the magnitude of the relationship. The measures of identification behaved identically to the measures of valence. If it was good, it was like me. If it was not like me, it was unpleasant, bad, not likable, and troubling. If it was good, pleasant, likable, and comforting, it was mine.

I started this project with the vague notion that we treat brands like people. We associate personalities with them, and we identify with them. Sure, we may say that Pepsi tastes better, but it is more than that. If you insult Pepsi, you are doing more than insulting something that I like. You are insulting something that is like me. You are, in essence, insulting me.

Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts was onto something when he talked about brand relationships that transcend reason (see the Frontline documentary, The Persuaders). This project in the Communication & Cognition lab is quickly moving from journalistic exercise to formal science. The application to conduct systematic research with actual human subjects will be filed this week, and we should begin collecting research data in early February. Stay tuned.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Unseen Ads Reveal Puritan Roots

In case you are in doubt about the Puritan foundations of this country, check out Advertising Age's Top 10 ads that you will not see in the U.S. this year.

Use Ad Age's QwikFIND ID: AAR23H

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Smile Mona, Smile

Of interest to fellow emotion scientists, a article reports that facial emotion recognition software indicates the Mona Lisa is feeling mostly happy. There are many interesting models trying to recognize and interpret facial emotion, a clear communication function (for more on modeling, read this posting).

It is easy for us -- humans -- to see that the Mona Lisa is smiling, but it is much more tricky to get a computer to do the task. And it is much more difficult yet to get a computer to do it in real time with real faces, that change shape, direction, orientation, and expression amazingly quickly. The article reports that the model predicted that the Mona Lisa was 83% happy and 9% disgusted. My guess is that is a misunderstanding by the journalist and that the 83% has more to do with the probability of the prediction -- or the confidence in the prediction -- rather than really intending to slice up the emotion pie in this fashion.

Having never examined the painting with my emotion theorist hat on, I immediately recognized that not only is she happy, but she is genuinely happy. In our lab, we measure facial EMG to index emotion. We can measure the electrical potentials in the muscle fibers that make us smile and frown. To express pleasant emotion, we use two prominent muscle groups that can be easily measured. First, we use the zygomaticus major muscle group, which draws up the corners of the mouth in a smile. However, we also use the orbicularis oculi muscle group, which turns up the corners of the eye.

The interesting point worth noting is that we can voluntarily control the zygomatic response, but the orbicularis group is not subject to conscious control. This means that when you fake a smile, you turn up the corners of the mouth but not the corners of the eye. So if you train yourself to look -- which admittedly I have not done -- you can be a bit of an amateur lie detector when it comes to smiling. And now that you have this training, you can see both muscle groups at work in the Mona Lisa.

I find this especially interesting since it indicates that Leonardo da Vinci was aware of that difference, for it would have been virtually impossible for any model to have held the real smile long enough to paint a portrait. Since da Vinci died in 1528, and the French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne who wrote extensively about the difference between real and genuine smiles was not born until 1806, this marks yet one more way in which da Vinci was a pioneer.

As a note of trivia, genuine smiles often are called Duchenne smiles for his extensive work in the area. As a second note of trivia, this is one of the many reasons why "method" acting is successful. An actress more convincingly smiles when she actually feels happy.

Undergrad Researchers Garner Awards

Today is an exciting day in the Communication & Cognition lab, as the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences announces that two of our undergraduate researchers, Kristen Coffaro and Jaimie Hardesty have won $500 SBS Undergraduate Research Awards.

These competitive grants will help fund their ongoing research activities in our lab. Congratulations to both of them for securing funding so early in their research careers.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Brands We Know

Why do you drink Coca-Cola? Why do you wash your clothes in Tide? Why do you drink an expensive imported beer instead of a no-name brand?

These questions have interested me for a while, but they have remained dormant. As my academic training has provided more tools to understand emotion and memory, the notion of brands has remained on mind.

Recently -- with the help of a group of talented undergraduate students -- I began revisiting the topic. Eventually, we will do some scientific research on the topic. For now, I am collecting informal data to report here.

I am trying to determine what brands mean to people. How are they semantically represented in the mind? To do that, however, one has to commit to a definition of "meaning," and this borders on philosophy. In my lab, we are looking back toward history. In 1957, Osgood, Suci, and Tannenbaum published The Measurement of Meaning. This seminal work outlines the semantic differential, which is a tool wherein two adjectives are separated by some number of equal intervals, usually 7. So for example, a semantic differential might look like:

good __:__:__:__:__:__:__ bad

For any and all things, I could ask you this question. So, if you thought "X" were particularly good, you could check the space right next to "good" and so on. Osgood et al. used 50 such pairs of adjectives across a variety of stimuli. This produces an enormous data set. They were able to reduce the data to manageable size with a mathematical technique called Factor Analysis, which (to oversimplify) allows us to reduce the number of dimensions driving a data set. Thus, for example, if I ask you 50 semantic differentials (e.g., good-bad, pleasant-unpleasant, exciting-calming), do you respond based upon 50 unique "factors" in your mind? Or are there fewer factors driving your responses? Factor analysis provides one tool to try to reduce these dimensions.

Interestingly, Osgood et al. repeatedly found that most of the pattern of responding (i.e., variance) could be described by three dimensions. They found these same three dimensions with a wide variety of stimuli. After examining the pairs of adjectives most associated with each factor, Osgood et al. labeled the dimensions "evaluation," "activity," and "potencty." This 1957 book is one of the most cited works by emotion theorists who subscribe to a dimensional theory of emotion. Thus, we tend to call these dimensions, "hedonic valence," "arousal," and "dominance."

My simple question for now is whether we can describe mental representations of brands in the same three dimensions. As I said, in the coming year we will conduct systematic research in this area. For now, I am collecting some data to write about here, a journalistic exercise. If you have any interest in how we come to know brands, stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Gay Ads Update: Ford Targets Pubs

Thanks to the crack Web surfing of IU doctoral student Angelini, I can update the gay ads posting. Reuters reports that Ford Motor Company has reversed itself and will place ads in gay and lesbian publications. Among the Ford lines advertised will be Jaguar and Land Rover, premium dollar vehicles that Ford surely hopes will appeal to this high discretionary income market.

Cognitively, this move remains on the safe side. There is likely little cross-over readership (do you read the Advocate?), so other than this initial announcement, the conservative voter is not likely to be aware of ads portrayed in gay and lesbian publications. This is an important step by Ford, however, our society remains far from commonplace portrayals of homosexual models in mainstream media -- the type of ads we are currently studying.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

P&G Stands Ground in Support of 'Gay' Ads

I avoid politics. I am a scientist. I leave it to the politicians, and I learned while writing an opinion column for two years that no matter what I write, Republicans will see me as a communist, and Democrats will see me as a fascist. However, a front page story on Ad Age brought joy to me today and led me to approach the political line. It seems that the conservative-based American Family Association was not able to force Procter & Gamble from advertising in television programs "promoting the homosexual lifestyle" as AFA cheered last year.

In order to pressure the nation's largest advertiser out of shows such as NBC's 'Will and Grace' and Bravo's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," AFA launched a boycott of P&G products. When no P&G ads showed up in the programs the next week, AFA sent out a press release and proclaimed victory.

Not so fast. Last week a P&G spokesperson told Ad Age, "We didn't change our media buys. If we didn't show up in advertising [on the two shows around the time the boycott ended] it was either because the episode content didn't fit our guidelines or because there was no inventory available." So poor sampling led AFA to the wrong conclusion.

Ad Age goes on to say, "Despite AFA's efforts, gay media is having 'another banner year.' " It seems that double income no kids goes a little farther in a capitalistic society than Mississippi-based bigotry wrapped in a wholesome name. I'll wear my clothes washed in Tide a little more proudly tomorrow.

In the meantime, I continue to address this topic in a study with my colleague James Angelini, who designed the study. Although the data await formal write up, I will offer a sneak peak here. Despite the fact that participants report more favorable attitudes to print advertisements with heterosexual portrayals, the ads with homosexual portrayals are better remembered. Importantly, these ads were for mainstream, equally familiar brands, such as Bud Light. Is is better to be remembered or persuaded. We shall see.

Much data analysis remains to be done, but perhaps America is more ready to accept mainstream ads in programming with some homosexual content than ads with actual gay and lesbian portrayals. Nonetheless, the flood gates are open, and as with other underrepresented groups in the past, homosexuals are moving toward a balanced representation on television. That is, we will soon see favorable and unfavorable portrayals of homosexuals on TV. As is the case with the dominant WASP portrayals now, there are good and bad members of any group, and "fair" TV should reflect that diversity.

In the meantime, religious conservatives, rest assured that the free market you champion is doing its job. AFA's members' budgets are stretched thin paying to feed and clothe that family about which they care so much. They have less disposable income, and it is difficult to avoid P&G at retailers such as Wal-Mart. Meanwhile -- in part because of AFA favored legislation hindering gay adoption -- their gay and lesbian targets have oodles of discretionary income. And corporate America has taken notice.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Negative Information Weighs More Heavily on the Brain

I took the title of this post from one of my favorite journal articles, "Negative information weighs more heavily on the brain: The negativity bias in evaluative categorization" by Tiffany Ito, John Cacioppo, and colleagues. Since I first read this article, I must admit that I use its title to answer a question at least once a month.

Critics blast journalists for the "If it bleeds, it leads" mentality. My response? "Negative information weighs ..." Well, you know the rest. This morning I was recounting the trials and tribulations of my lab lock (it broke last week) with our amazing executive assistant, and she remarked that I have "a little cloud" above me. Although this may seem true, I assured her that good things largely have defined my time at OSU. Then, of course, I explained how it only seemed negative because negative information weighs ... you see the pattern.

Less than an hour after this conversation, I came across a story on about, which self describes the Web site as "Real News. Compelling Stories. Always Positive." You can imagine what my first thought was.

Upon further consideration, however, I began to think that the site could work. These days fragmentation describes the media. No longer do you have only three networks from which to choose. Hundreds of channels fill (i.e., pollute) your airwaves. Thousands of magazine titles clog bookstore shelves, and millions of Web sites and Weblogs ask for your attention. In this environment a Happy News Web site can not only survive, it can flourish -- at the fringe.

For the major news outlets, this strategy would spell doom. There is a reason that negativity defines the news, and it is not due to widespread sadism among editors. Instead it is the basic wiring of the human brain. This fact -- more than any other -- keeps me away from normative predictions. As a cognitive scientist, I am keenly aware that we can simultaneously complain about the negative news while religiously tuning in.

But hidden among that discontent is an opportunity. "See a need, fill a need" says Bigweld in the movie Robots currently occupying my children so I can post this. There is a need for positive news. There are viewers (my TV bias here) who will seek it out, and there are people who will pay to advertise to these wide-eyed optimists. As an industry-wide strategy, "going positive" stands only to fail. For a niche, however, money awaits.

As a real-world example, let's consider lead headlines when clicking on Health at various news outlets: "Clinic assists childhood cancer survivors." "Lasik at 10: Common but not covered." "Parental involvement deters teens drug use." "What me worry? Getting guys to wise up about their health."

CNN carries an Associated Press piece, and the fifth paragraph is full of warning, uncertainty, and lack of insurance coverage. FoxNews talks about what parents can do, but still rattles off frightening statistics, while MSNBC focuses on room for improvement. In truth, life contains both happiness and sadness. Evolution wired our brains to attend to the latter, and our behavior as a news audience reflects this. For a niche Web site, however, normative ideals may be quite profitable as a backlash to our evolved minds.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Next Blog >> Is a Powerful Addiction

Since I study mediated communication, part of this blogging adventure began in hopes of better understanding the medium. Early on I wondered about the consequences of having so many speakers. More and more, however, I am finding that so many people have something to say.

If you want to waste time online, and I mean really waste time online, click on the "Next Blog >>" icon in the upper right corner of this window. It will take you to some arbitrary Blogspot Weblog. The algorithm seems to have something to do with recently updated Weblogs since most of the times that I click it, I find a Weblog that was updated today. Or, interestingly, clicking on it tonight I found several Weblogs updated tomorrow ahead of the international dateline. But sometimes the Weblog is stale.

During the past 36 hours, I have devoted approximately 3 hours to "Next Blog >>." And I stopped clicking it now out of guilt. In short, it is amazing the crap that people have to say. I have seen wedding photos, baby photos, random junk from people's lives, and more international languages than I could identify. Blogging is big in Australia and Singapore. There are many Spanish language Weblogs. Teen-agers are the same idiots they were when I was among their ranks (and an idiot myself).

It is interesting to note the varying comfort level among bloggers. One interesting site commented on the advertising industry from the inside, so it was anonymous. I have run across at least three Weblogs by bored (desperate?) housewives. One was anonymous, but the other two had many photos. One woman had a lot of pictures of her kids. One of the photos was a picture of her kids in front of their elementary school. I knew it was the elementary school because the photo was posed under the school's sign ... which also had the school's street address. I almost left a comment suggesting that this was probably unwise.

Next Blogging is like channel surfing on steroids. There are millions of stories out there. Most of them are awful. A few are fascinating. I ran across several Weblogs purporting to be about how to blog. However, they were really revenue generators. They were quickly complied with some blogging tips and linked ads (i.e., revenue generation). I quickly learned that you can spot novices and lazy bloggers by the presence of the default "Google News / Edit Me / Edit Me" links, which are meant to be updated.

The principle component analysis still runs in my head. I will keep thinking about it. As more and more of my colleagues take to the blogsphere, however, it becomes a more powerful medium for expressing research agendas and making our science available to the public. And I believe that has to be a good thing.

Look Under Construction

I am working on the template for this Weblog today, so it may look funky at various points. My apologies.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Modeling Communication Theories

At one time, I had hoped to teach a graduate seminar at Indiana on computational modeling of communication theories. Due to the modeling strengths of Indiana's cognitive science program, a strong core of the Telecom Ph.D. students have the requisite background in modeling to undertake such a seminar. That seminar never came to fruition, but I am beginning to think toward such a seminar at Ohio State.

Theories are wonderful things. They allow what one scholar calls "abstract direct reasoning." However, formal computational models allow scientists to do more. The models themselves can be taken apart, toyed with, and simulated in a fashion not possible with the real world -- especially real human subjects. I believe that more communication science needs to involve this type of formal modeling.

Although the hypothesized course is still at least two years away, I envision a class similar in structure to John Kruschke's Q550 course at IU. The quarter system at OSU would be a challenge, but I believe the class could me managed.

The course would be built around the MATLAB programming language and its graphical user interface builder, GUIDE. The first three weeks would involve parallel goals of introducing formal models of communication theories and MATLAB programming. Because modeling in communication is relatively young, we would need a small core of pet models in the field.

During weeks four through six, students would begin to program an experiment to collect data for their model, and we would work through the code of an existing model.

Week seven would be dedicated to data collection, where we would all serve as subjects for one another's experiments. Students would begin to program their own models.

The final three weeks would be devoted to model programming and student presentations. We would learn from one another and get exposed to several models. Finally, the quarter would end in a poster session where we present model fits, etc.

Hopefully the seminar would not end there. It is my long-standing goal that this seminar would feed into a panel submission for the International Communication Association and an eventual edited book. With some notable exceptions, including my colleague Ed Palazzolo, formal computational modeling is rare in communication. I believe this edited volume would prove to be a fascinating introductory reader for interested communication scholars.

To see other scholars bringing modeling to communication science, see the work of David Roskos-Ewoldsen at Alabama.

Finally, for an excellent discussion of the difference between theories and models, I encourage you to read philosopher Michael Weisberg's paper, Who Is a Modeler?

Friday, December 09, 2005

In Search of Massive Data

I hate the answer "because it's too difficult." I like a good challenge, and I loathe admitting that a task is beyond me. In research, however, sometimes one must do just that. On the tenure track, you have only so much time to accumulate a record that demonstrates that you are going to have a good career. Accordingly, longitudinal data are pretty much impossible. There is no way to collect panel data, for example, on teen-agers' media use over time. If you collect data for 5 years, they will not be ready when you go up for tenure.

As part of the strategic communications focus area, I spent a lot of time talking to students about advertising, public relations, and marketing. They want to know what works and why. All too often I don't like the answers that I can provide them. You see, I know that attitudes are only mildly predictive of behavior. The best predictor of behavior is behavior. But I have neither the time nor the money to go around measuring what people do and what they buy. Even more problematic is correlating marketing communications with behavior.

So we bring people into the lab and measure their attitudes. Unlike much research in strategic communications, we do measure behavior. We record psychophysiological responses, and we measure memory, which is behavioral in nature. But we do not know what our experimental participants really buy. And more importantly, we have almost no mechanism for tracking behavior after exposure to an experimental condition.

Every once in a while, I see something that causes the nerd in me to smile. In the Dec. 5, 2005, edition of Advertising Age, there is a story about advertising agency DDB collecting data on "signs" to identify consumer trends (p. 6). In the piece, DDB's Stacey Grier is quoted as saying, "Behavior tells more about motivations than attitudes do." I agree! And the exciting part is that this project is grander in scale than anything most academics could presently undertake.

DDB is turning to its rank-and-file employees for cultural indicators. They are looking for insights into the human condition, which they call "signs." They call the model DDB SignBank, and it was developed by DDB sociologist Eva Steensig. The project involves asking everyone from receptionists to advertising professionals to scan their lives for signs of cultural change (i.e., signs) and record them. So far, they have a database of 30,000 signs. Data on this massive scale allow for insights not possible in smaller, more tenure-friendly studies.

Obviously there are drawbacks to this method. Sadly, the model is highly proprietary, so academic scholars such as myself cannot comment on its rigor. Nonetheless, the idea is yet another piece in the mental puzzle. And, for the sake of circularity, observations on Weblogs are one of the signs.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Grading is the Devil

That pretty much says it all.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Quarter Wraps Up

Today was a fitting end to the quarter in Columbus. An icy breeze blew across campus, and a light snow fell as I walked to give the last final. The final for strategic communication drew feedback of being more difficult than I had intended, so it will be interesting to see the grades.

Today marked the last lab meeting of the quarter, and as always we have not accomplished as much as we should have. But it was a great first quarter, and many exciting projects will run in the lab in 2006!

Monday, December 05, 2005

Papers and More Papers

Today marked some progress around here. Due to some hard work by my colleague and first mentor, Bob Meeds, a much improved book chapter is out the door. I also worked on a proposal for a panel session with my Ph.D. adviser, Annie Lang.

The bad news is that as those projects made it out the door, 17 graduate papers are coming in the door tomorrow to grade. And to make matters worse, I cannot find my Magic 8 Ball to help with grading.

Tomorrow also marks the final for COMM 431, where 209 students will go on their various ways. There are some pretty neat students in that class, and I will miss them.

Finally, tomorrow marks the last lab meeting of the quarter. Where did autumn go?

Sunday, December 04, 2005

First Step Toward a Solution

Playing some small role in reforming academe (or failing miserably) is now my pet crusade. I passed the thoughts in yesterday's post along to the AAA program chair, and he had many insightful things to say. Foremost he pointed out that I criticized the situation without offering a solution. True enough! You see, the dilemma is that no one can solve the entire thing at once, and it is difficult to suggest pieces. So at Dr. Richard's suggestion, I plan to propose a special session on this topic for AAA 2007. If you have thoughts, e-mail me or comment here.

In the meantime, I will outline ideas for partial solutions here. Many of these ideas are amalgamations of others' ideas, and in almost no case will the ideas be solely my own. I will give credit generously, and any oversight is due only to my faulty memory.

The first thing we must do is to increase flexibility for conference programmers. Every conference is unique, and the programmer should not be tied to tradition. Size matters, people. My last AAA conference was in 2002 in Jacksonville, Florida. It was a great conference, but turnout was down due to the terrorist attacks in September 2001. So perhaps my paper sucked, but it might have been accepted only because there were slots to fill. This year -- for Reno -- there were a record number of submissions. So there were a record number of rejections.

Referring back to my previous ramblings, these scarce and plentiful rejections have nothing to do with the quality of the paper (and the ideas therein). Instead they are formula driven. The first thing we must do to change this is to remove formulas and give freedom to the program chairs. If too few quality manuscripts are available, then chairs need to be able to schedule sessions with one paper fewer than normal.

A related idea should be imported from the Information Systems division of the International Communication Association. Often championed by my Ph.D. adviser, Annie Lang, program chairs need the flexibility to schedule high-density sessions. As Annie often says, if a paper is worth presenting, it should be presented. High-density sessions would allow the program chair to break up two 5-paper sessions (10 total) into two high-density sessions with 8 or 9 papers each. This allows an additional 6-8 papers to be presented if their quality merits presentation.

Every time I leave a conference, I come away inspired with some new idea. I would hate to think that I would miss out on this key aspect of science due to some arbitrary cut-off. A high-density session allows each author to present the key tenets of their paper in 5 to 6 minutes, followed up by a small version of a poster session where audience members can learn more about relevant papers.

Not only does this allow more papers to be presented, but it also limits the amount of time that an audience member is held hostage during an irrelevant paper waiting for their particular paper of interest.

This falls far short of reforming the entire process. But it would mark a key step in the right direction.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

System Is Fundamentally Broken

Science proceeds through the peer-review process. One's work -- and one's success in the field -- depends on convincing blind reviewers of the merit of one's work. In principle, the system is sound. However, in practice, the system is fundamentally flawed.

Another set of reviews came back yesterday, this time for the conference of the American Academy of Advertising. My paper with colleague Johnny Sparks was rejected. It is not the rejection that bothers me, however. I am bothered by the evidence that the process is fundamentally flawed. You see, the reviews were not that bad. In fact, the first reviewer acknowledged interesting aspects of our data. We were nit picked on the literature review. That is, the reviewers did not like the other papers we chose to cite. This is both fair and trivial at the same time. Johnny and I wrote the paper in a hurry, so the literature review was not comprehensive, admittedly. But the complaint is trivial in that neither reviewer challenged our theorizing, our data, or our interpretations. This is the science. And the science was sound. To me this is a fundamental distinction, and it appears that few others care.

To me this reflects a failure on the part of the reviewers. This manuscript may be worthless, but it seems to me that the crucial aspect of a paper -- the ideas -- are rarely closely evaluated. Instead it is the simpler, superficial aspects of the paper that are scrutinized. The difference is key. If your science is weak, it cannot be saved by editing and review. However, if your science is strong, then suggestions by reviewers and editors can make the paper better. And clearly this paper fell into the latter category. However, the reviewers failed to note this key distinction. This paper is just the latest instance in a long trend of such instances.

The trouble is that if you crack open the average communication, journalism, or advertising journal, that journal likely will be filled with weak but well polished science. The emperor, my friends, is naked. And no one seems to care.

The second issue worth considering is another fatal flaw in the review process. Reviewers provide feedback to the authors, and they provide confidential feedback to the editor/conference programmer. This provides two layers of blind review. The reviewers can say one thing to the authors and another to the editor. This forces the authors into uncertainty over why their paper was rejected. How is this second layer beneficial to science? The reviewers' names are withheld, too. Be honest. Say what you mean.

Allow me to apply this flaw to the current case. Our paper was rejected; however, the only reviewer to provide substantial feedback admitted the paper was "close" and that our discussion of results was "interesting." Now given those two things, how is it possible that this paper is not worthy of presentation at a conference? The only answer is that we do not know because the paper was not rejected based upon these comments. Instead that paper was rejected based upon numerical ratings that were not provided to us. Blind comments to the program chair also might have played a role. Again, we cannot know. But if a paper is "close," then the science is sound, and we argue about only polishing.

Science moves forward when scientists debate ideas. My ego is not fragile, and I can handle being told that someone does not like my ideas. This is the point of a conference. We are -- to quote my former mentor Tom Grimes -- in the business of ideas. The sad reality is that a narrowly applied system strangles ideas. Our journals and conferences overflow with these well polished mediocre ideas. We do not seek out and nurture good ideas. This is wrong, and it is choking the profession. It needs to change. If it does not, communication will remain a pseudo-science at the fringes and without the respect of our peers within the academy.

Friday, December 02, 2005

First Lab Party

Following in the great tradition of my Ph.D. advisor, Annie Lang, the Communication & Cognition lab had its first ever end-of-the-quarter lab party. Hopefully, fun was had by all.
Here, from left, is lab manager, Jaimie, lab member, Monica, and wife, Emily!

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Field Trip

Tuesday marked a field trip to the Communication & Cognition lab. All 17 students from my COMM 840 graduate seminar showed up to the lab for a small demonstration of psychophysiology. Good sport and lab member Tim Laubacher served as guinea pig for the demonstration.

We hooked up skin conductance and EKG sensors, and we all monitored Tim's physiology on-screen. Since no experiment is yet ready to go, we had to improvise. First, I threatened to show Tim the AARP Web page to see whether he was aroused by senior citizens.

Although there was no visible change in skin conductance, this did lead to the quotation of the night from Tim, "You know what's really arousing? The fear that you have that you will be aroused by old people." Har.

Other demonstrations included stepping on Tim's foot (arousing), yelling at Tim (arousing), threatening to show Tim the Boy Scouts Web page (not arousing), and trying to scare Tim with various Flash pop-ups that were not quite loud enough to startle (not arousing).

In all it was great fun, and more importantly, the session marked one more step toward creation of the vibrant lab atmosphere I enjoyed at Indiana.

In related news, the first-ever end-of-quarter Communication & Cognition lab party is this Friday at my house!