year, at the UCLA Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center, Marco
Iacoboni and his group used functional magnetic resonance imaging
(fMRI) to measure brain responses in a group of subjects while
they were watching the Super Bowl ads.
Commercials are a part of our lives. We watch them, enjoy them, and discuss them with our friends. Do commercials make us buy the product they advertise? Nobody really knows. The most anticipated 'ad experience' is watching the Super Bowl ads. After the game, there is a flurry of opinions from marketing experts and focus groups of what was the most effective Super Bowl ad. This year, at the UCLA Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center, Marco Iacoboni and his group used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain responses in a group of subjects while they watched the Super Bowl ads. The way fMRI works is relatively simple: different levels of cerebral blood oxygenation have different magnetic properties. Moreover, changes in blood oxygenation correlate with changes in neural activity. Thus, without using any contrast agent, fMRI can measure how much brain areas are activated during sensory, cognitive and motor experiences.
This very first attempt at doing 'instant-science' is a collaborative effort between Marco Iacoboni's group — a leading group in functional neuroimaging — and FKF Applied Research, a marketing firm. The main idea behind this project is that there is often a disconnect between what people say about what they like — and the real, underlying deeper motives that make us want and like some things and some people, but not others. With fMRI, it is possible to look at unfiltered brain responses, to measure how the ads shown today elicit emotions, induce empathy, and inspire liking and wanting. So, to put it bluntly:
Who really won the Super Bowl?
Here is Iacoboni's answer.
MARCO IACOBONI, MD PhD, is a neurologist and neuroscientist originally from Italy. Today he is at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, where he serves on the faculty of the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences and is Director of the Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation laboratory of the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center. Iacoboni's lab is arguably the leading lab in human mirror neuron research and he has a close relationship with Giacomo Rizzolatti in whose lab mirror neurons were originally discovered in monkeys.
REALLY WON THE SUPER BOWL?
(-UPDATE- the Superbowl ads can be viewed on googlevideo at the following: link)
I - 2.6.06
II - 2.7.06
We have now completed our analyses on the fMRI data from five healthy volunteers that were studied last night at the UCLA Brain Mapping Center while they were watching Super Bowl ads. We tested a total of 24 ads, 21 Super Bowl ads and three ‘test ads’ that were previously shown. Our results show that the overwhelming winner among the Super Bowl ads is the Disney – NFL ‘I am going to Disney’ ad. The Disney ad elicited strong responses in orbito-frontal cortex and ventral striatum, two brain regions associated with processing of rewards. Also, the Disney ad induced robust responses in mirror neuron areas, indicating identification and empathy. Further, the circuit for cognitive control, encompassing anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, was highly active while watching the Disney ad. We consider all these features positive markers of brain responses to the ad. In second place, the Sierra Mist ad, activated the same brain regions but less so than the Disney ad.
Considering the hype surrounding the ads, I would say several ads performed poorly when judged on the basis of the brain activity induced in key areas for social behavior. However, the three biggest flops seem to be the Burger King ad, the FedEx ad, and the GoDaddy ad. Three quite interesting features that come out of this instant-study are the following: first, people – when interviewed - tend to say what they are expected to say, but their brain seems to say the opposite. For instance, female subjects may give verbally very low ‘grades’ to ads using actresses in sexy roles, but their mirror neuron areas seem to fire up quite a bit, suggesting some form of identification and empathy. Second, in some fMRI runs we presented the same ad twice, just to test for habituation. We saw strong habituation effects, such that the second time around the commercial induces much weaker responses. Third - and this is probably interesting to neuroscientists – among brain regions associated with complex social behavior, we observed a mix of activation and de-activation. Only mirror neuron areas demonstrated quite a systematic activation while watching the ads, a feature that one generally sees only in perceptual areas, such as auditory and visual areas. This suggests that mirroring is a fairly automatic processing. However, in mirror neuron areas we did observe different degrees of activation.
Finally, the highlights of the day. This is the brain activity of one of our subjects recorded while the subject was watching the Disney ad. Both mirror neuron areas and ventral striatum – indicated by the yellow arrows – are engaged by the ad.
Another interesting finding is the following one. Remember the end of the FedEx ad, when the caveman is crushed by the dinosaur? We looked at the activity in the amygdala, a tiny brain structure (see picture below) critical for emotional processing in general, especially responding to threat and fearful stimuli.
There is a big jump in amygdala activity when the dinosaur crushes the caveman, as shown below. The scene looks funny and has been described as funny by lots of people, but your amygdala still perceives it as threatening, another example of disconnect between verbal reports on ads and brain activity while viewing the ads.
If you want to know more about these analyses, and have a more savvy advertising oriented angle of this project, look into the FKF Applied Research web site (www.fkfadrank.com/superbowl). Without the inspiration, help and expertise of FKF Applied Research this project could not have happened.