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One of the oddest things about the Super Bowl is that the TV ads that run during the game get almost as much attention as the game itself..

This year, the ads even got scientific attention at the University of California in Los Angeles. There, just after the game on Sunday, five volunteers had their brain activity monitored using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they watched more than 20 commercials that had aired during the Super Bowl.

Among the areas of the brain that “lit up” as the volunteers watched the commercials those connected to reward, empathy, vision and hearing. Based on the assumption that a bad ad would only briefly affect the auditory and visual regions, while a good ad would also make an impression on the reward and empathy centres, the researchers concluded the best ads were the Disney/NFL ad (“I’m going to Disneyland!”) and the Sierra Mist ad (a humorous ad about an airport search).

The ad for Budweiser beer featuring a “secret fridge” was a bad ad by the researchers’ standards because it only stirred the visual area (although, according to USA Today, consumers ranked it number one).

If harnessing the power of fMRI for something as prosaic as advertising seems odd to you, you must not have heard of the fledgling field of “neuromarketing.”

Neuromarketing studies the impact on the brain of advertising and branding. Neuromarketing researchers want to find out what kind of advertising engages people and convinces them to buy products, the goal being to make obsolete the adage I first learned in a public relations course in university: “Only 10 percent of advertising works–but nobody knows which 10 percent.”

Neuromarketing studies are being carried out all over the place. In 2003, the brain activity of participants in a blind Coke-Pepsi taste test was scanned. Dr. Read Montague, Director of the Center for Theoretical Neuroscience at Baylor University, found that both drinks lit up the reward centres of the participants (evenly split between Coke- and Pepsi-preferrers). But when they were told which soft drink they had just tasted, a part of the brain associated with higher functions lit-up–and three-quarters then said they preferred the Coke. Dr. Montague thinks they were reacting to everything they’d seen and heard about Coke–in other words, the drink’s perceived quality was affected by the brand image created by years of advertising.

Gemma Calvert, a founder and director of Neurosense Ltd. in Oxford, England, has conducted research that indicates the brain sorts, sifts and retains information even when the conscious attention of the person is elsewhere–possibly useful to those trying to design packaging or billboards. She’s also researched brain response to smell and colour, producing data the food industry could use to create more appealing products.

For an advertising company called PHD Media, Calvert scanned the brain activity of subjects exposed to audio ads, a combination of audio and visual ads, and just visual ads. The research indicated that audio-visual ads were best at disrupting existing perceptions. On the basis of that research, one of PHD Media’s clients dropped its print ads to concentrate on television ads.

Neuromarketing, still in its infancy, alarms some people, who have visions of advertisers being able to reach inside our brains somehow and influence us without our even being aware of it.

I find it hard to be very alarmed, myself. Advertisers (and movie makers and musicians and painters and actors and politicians–in fact, communicators of all stripes) have always tried to push our mental buttons. In some cases, there are hundreds of years of built-up wisdom as to the best way to achieve a particular emotional response–that big swelling orchestral music at the end of a feel-good movie isn’t there by accident, you know.

Neuromarketing research may take some of the guesswork out of the emotional-manipulation process, but at the same time, it arms all of us with the knowledge that our brain’s unconscious response can’t always be trusted–and that gives the rational, conscious part of our brain a little cynical seed that can sprout and soar into a towering tree, shading and sheltering us from annoying advertisers’ toxic torrent of sneaky slogans, jangling jingles, lovely logos and amusing ads.

Heck, I wish I could brain-scan a few of this column’s readers. Maybe then I’d find out if the alliteration-laden final sentence of the previous paragraph is as annoying as I suspect.

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1 comment

    • NeuroGuy on February 8, 2006 at 12:41 pm
    • Reply

    Perhaps the brain’s unconscious responses can’t always be trusted, but, if you believe the thesis of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, sometimes they do better than the rational, conscious part of the brain.

    Nice overall perspective – I agree that in many cases new neuromarketing techologies will only confirm what savvy marketers have known for years.

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