SiriusXM scans brainwaves to figure out what’s funny

A campaign for this year's Top Comic competition uses an EEG to get inside the heads of Canadians.

A fan vote is one way to figure out what kinds of jokes Canadians think are funny, but this year, SiriusXM decided to also bring some scientific rigour to the campaign for its Top Comic competition.

The company created an EEG machine – which monitors brainwaves and signals to different parts of the brain to measure cognitive states like excitement, interest, stress, engagement, attention and meditation – that it called Humour Analysis Helmet Apparatus, or “H.A.H.A.” for short. It used the machine to prove that every Canadian reacts differently to different kinds of humour. A video representing how the tech works showed a biker, nun and teenager react to different kinds of jokes, from dad jokes to political humour, while wearing the helmet.

The campaign went live last weekend and will be in market until voting closes on Aug. 17. SiriusXM again worked with Taxi as the creative agency on this year’s Top Comic campaign, as well as with Current Studios, an agency based in Halifax and New York that specializes in using emerging technology to create content.

While the video uses actors to dramatize how H.A.H.A. works, the tech behind it is very real.

“To build the H.A.H.A. helmet our benchmark for delivery was accuracy,” said Stephen Martell, Current’s VP of technology. “We needed this helmet to understand not only that someone found something humorous, but that it understood the level of humour as well. Within EEG scanners, the brain provides some predictable patterns for key emotions, like joy and pain. By correlating EEG readings with a person’s response to a stand-up routine, we mapped levels of humorous responses, from ‘amused’ where someone may think something is funny, but show very little outward response beyond a subtle head nod, to ‘hilarious’ where someone responded with a full body laugh. This scale of measurement allowed us to rate the humour level of each comedian or comedy moment.”

Alexis Bronstorph, ECD at Taxi, says opportunities to use the actual H.A.H.A. machine with SiriusXM are currently being explored.

Top Comic is an annual competition where 18 up-and-coming Canadian comedians are put up against each other in an online fan vote. Taxi’s campaign for last year’s edition of the contest also had a tech angle, as the agency built an Alexa-inspired AI bot that automatically created jokes based on subjects people tweeted at it.

Seen as futuristic and fantastical not too long ago, neuromarketing has become an increasingly popular way to get a scientific analysis of how consumers react to the different stimuli brands put in front of them. But EEG machines have also found their way above the line, such as in a campaign earlier this year for apparel brand Life is Good, which got people to fill a glass of water by only thinking positive thoughts.