Based upon the participants’ ratings of advertisement effectiveness, the most effective advertisement campaign was campaign B, followed closely by campaign A, and then campaign C by a larger margin. In contrast, the MPFC demonstrated the greatest activation when watching campaign C, followed closely by campaign B, and then campaign A. So, the brain and self-report are telling us something different, and Dr. Falk’s previous paper suggests that the neural activation in this region would more likely predict who will actually quit smoking. So, which was correct?
Based upon the change in calls to the Quitline before and after each advertisement aired, campaign C was by far the most effective. Campaign C resulted in a 32-fold increase in call volume to the Smoking Quitline, while campaign B resulted in a 12-fold increase, and campaign A only resulted in a 3-fold increase. This effectiveness ranking between campaigns (C > B > A) matches that predicted by neural activation in the MPFC.
Many companies spend millions of dollars creating, filming, and airing advertisements, especially for big events such as the Superbowl (This was my favorite Superbowl XLIX commercial, by the way: #likeagirl). These millions of dollars are intended to be an investment in the even larger revenue generated by the advertisement. Based on this article, the time may be quickly approaching when experimental approaches using fMRI may extend into the private sector, helping advertising agencies determine which campaigns will give them the most bang for their buck.
Obviously, this study was very specific to a target audience where self-reports are perhaps more susceptible to bias than consumer products like which dish soap you buy. It remains to be seen whether neural activity to an advertisement in a group of random individuals in the community, including smokers who have no intention to quit and non-smokers, would return the same results. Given that the brain region with the predictive value (MPFC) is associated with self-referential thinking, I would expect that this finding is limited only to sub-groups of individuals for whom the ad is relevant. However, that’s not too different from marketing focus groups; they use housewives for focus groups on laundry detergent and athletes for focus groups on high-performance running shoes. To truly compare, they would need to conduct this study again comparing the predictions of focus groups on ad effectiveness with the predictions based on neural activity.
Even so, this team of creative researchers still have strong evidence that what a person’s brain is doing in Los Angeles when watching a new advertisement will predict whether a person in Louisiana will call a hotline after seeing the same advertisement. And that, my friends, is very cool.
Falk, E. B., Berkman, E. T., & Lieberman, M. D. (2012). From neural responses to population behavior neural focus group predicts population-level media effects. Psychological science, 23(5), 439-445.