It is early July, almost 30C outside, but Mihkel Jäätma is thinking about Christmas. In a co-working space in Soho, the 39-year-old founder and CEO of Realeyes, an “emotion AI” startup which uses eye-tracking and facial expression to analyse mood, scrolls through a list of 20 festive ads from 2018. He settles on The Boy and the Piano, the offering from John Lewis that tells the life story of Elton John backwards, from megastardom to the gift of a piano from his parents as a child, accompanied by his timeless heartstring-puller Your Song. The ad was well received, but Jäätma is clearly unconvinced.

He hits play, and the ad starts, but this time two lines – one grey (negative reactions), the other red (positive) – are traced across the action. These follow the second-by-second responses of a 200-person sample audience who watched the ad and allowed Realeyes to record them through the camera of their computer or smartphone. Realeyes then used its AI technology to analyse each individual’s facial expression and body language. The company did this with all of Jäätma’s list of 20 Christmas ads from 2018, watching 4,000 people, before rating each commercial for attention, emotion, sentiment and finally giving it a mark out of 10.

What is wrong with The Boy and the Piano, then? “So these are the metrics we measure: are you happy? Confused? Sad? Disgusted?” explains Jäätma, as the video plays. “If you look at the grey line, the negative emotions, you see that the UK audience is not that excited about the Elton John parts. The negativity goes up, people are tired about this promotion of the celebrity, they have had enough of this Elton John stuff.” Only when Elton as a child makes an appearance is there a spike of red. “Now when it goes into family and kids and it’s not the celebrity any more,” Jäätma goes on, “that’s where the positivity goes up.”

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