What can brain scans tell us about Super Bowl ads?

super_bowl_scan.jpgTo cut a long story short – don’t believe the hype. At least as it’s described in a story doing the rounds.

According to the report, neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni and his team brain-scanned people while they watched the Super Bowl adverts to see which “won”.

This is part of an emerging science called neuromarketing, which uses the techniques of cognitive neuroscience to try and evaluate and design better product promotions.

Iacoboni claims that “a good indicator of a successful ad is activity in brain areas concerned with reward and empathy” (which seems controversial at best, but we’ll move on).

The tricky bit comes when you try and measure brain activity from participants who are watching adverts.

The images generated from fMRI brain scanning are not pure ‘maps’ of brain activity. All of the brain is active all of the time, so to infer which areas are most involved, neuroscientists compare brain activity between different conditions.

These conditions are designed very carefully in scientific experiments, and in the most common form of comparison (‘subtraction’) they are identical, apart from the one thing that the researchers want to investigate.

It is, therefore, impossible to interpret the results of a brain scanning study without knowing how the experiment was designed and exactly what was being compared with what.

As this hasn’t been made clear, the results could be due to any number of things not related to how good the advert was.

From a previous study done on political ads by the same marketing company, it looks as if they just average the activation of a certain brain area over the course of the ad. They then base their conclusions of the effect of the ads on the assumed functions of these brain areas.

The difficulty is that the functions of these areas are still controversial. For example, with the Super Bowl ads, Iacobini claims that activation in the ‘mirror system’ is a measure of empathy. This is still highly contentious and is presumably based on conclusions from an earlier study of his.

Because of this uncertainty, it is difficult to know that any difference is not due to one advert having more movement in it than the other. Or perhaps more people. Or happier people. Or even something unrelated like a faster tempo in the music… despite the advert being otherwise rubbish.

The previous study on political ads (that made the front page of The New York Times no less) was completed while America was winding up for the 2004 presidential elections, and the current one was completed during the 24 hours after the Super Bowl.

Sounds like the ‘neuromarketing’ company involved in these stories is doing some pretty effective marketing of their own. Apparently more details will be forthcoming. I look forward to reading more (but remain skeptical!).

Link to ‘Who really won the Super Bowl? The Story of an Instant-Science Experiment’.

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