With ads, the brain is of its own mind
What we say we like we may not like at all
December 1, 2005
Did you pay attention to that commercial? Did you like it? These sound like easy enough questions, ones you could answer in a flash. But whether you’d be answering truthfully is quite another matter, it turns out.
New research suggests when it comes to TV ads there’s a disconnect between what people think they like and what their brains reveal they like, based on brain activity.
Similarly, people may say they ignore TV advertising, and they might actually believe they do, but the new research reveals that their brains are nonetheless fully engaged. Where TV commercials are concerned, brains have a mind of their own.
This is just one the findings from new research from Viacom Brand Solutions (VBS), done in conjunction with a cognitive neuroscience consultancy called Neurosense.
The research, which was undertaken to give VBS a better understanding of the human brain’s actual response to advertising, involved analyzing MRI scans taken of brain activity in 24 people as they watched a mixture of programs and advertising.
Nine different parts of the brain that are generally associated with advertising effectiveness were scanned. This included three parts from the emotional networks, as well as parts that measure analysis, absorption, effort, long-term memory, short-term memory and semantics, an area that relates to understanding.
After watching the programming, the participants were also asked to fill in a survey about which ads they liked and which they were familiar with.
The survey results were then compared to the actual charts of brain activity with some interesting results, says Agostino Di Falco, the London-based head of insight and research at VBS, the advertising sales operations for MTV, VH1, Paramount, Nickelodeon and E!.
It turns out there was no correlation between what people said on the surveys and what came out in the brain scans, in terms of the ads they watched. The programming that generated the most activity wasn’t the one that was most liked or that they were most familiar with. As such we speculate that what they say isn’t what they think, says Di Falco.
This wasn’t the only interesting result from the research.
There has long been a belief that people switch off during commercials. Not so, according to this research. Quite the opposite, in fact.
During actual programs, such as sitcoms and dramas, brain activity is largely restricted to one area that correlates with absorption, called the precuneus. The reason? Programming seems to take viewers far away from their hum-drum day-to-day lives as they narrow their focus on what they are watching. Activity in the other areas, such as those relating to emotion, memory, decision-making and thought, are all suppressed.
But when the ads come on, the study found, the activity is reversed, decreasing markedly in the precuneus while increasing markedly in the other eight parts of the brain. In other words, viewers have a conscious response to the advertising.
This provides a counter point to those that would have you believe that people switch off during ads. They just don’t. The study shows that they are more switched on in the areas we seek to influence, says Di Falco.
The study also added weight to the long-held belief that advertisements should be placed in congruent programming.
Ads placed in relevant programming, for instance, a serious ad within a documentary or an amusing ad during a sitcom, were on average 24 percent more likely to generate activity in the areas of the brain commonly associated with advertising effectiveness.
This finding shows that advertising is not just about making the ad and then putting it in the right environment, believes Di Falco. It is about looking at the media options you have and then making ads to suit that environment, he says.
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