Posted on | February 19, 2007 | No Comments
Principal, Ecra Creative Group
By at least one measure, this year’s crop of SuperBowl advertisements was not that good.
Researchers at the UCLA Ahmanson Lovelace Brain Mapping Center wired up 10 (unlucky) volunteers to have their brains scanned as they sat through all 33 of the most-anticipated SuperBowl ads. Putting aside the surprisingly small sample size (and, presumably, the limited data you could draw from such a sample), the conclusions were striking.
Only 20 percent of the ads studied activated the brain’s “reward and pleasure center”, the ventral striatum, in the participant group. A full 50 percent of last year’s ads lit up that same region of the brain.
More surprisingly, a majority of this year’s ads triggered the anxiety centers of the brain located in the amygdala, our primal “fight or flight” center – the same part of the brain that told our distant ancestors that the bear chasing you wanted to eat you (and if you do not want to be lunch, you had better get moving fast).
According to the researchers, “successful” advertisements typically activate multiple areas of the brain at once, not just one, and certainly not the amygdala alone. Specifically, this year’s spate of “dark themed” ads might have seemed funny or clever (like Budweiser’s “hitchhiker” spot), but according to researchers, they triggered a deep-seated fear response that may not translate into a purchase decision.
This is where it gets tricky.
Scientists like clear causes and direct effects. Gravitational forces acting on planets. The force created by a lever and fulcrum. A squared times B squared equals C squared. Questions that get good, unambiguous, mathematical answers. But when the number of variables increases, and you begin to factor in human behavior, the simplicity of direct cause and effect slips away.
In other words, I find the causal links drawn by the researchers with a certain degree of skepticism.
For one, researchers made a critical assumption: That all the SuperBowl ads were meant to entertain, and that entertainment translates into a purchase. In other words, if the ad activates the “wrong” section of the brain, then (the logic goes) the ad is ineffective.
We all want decisions like this to be easy. This ad worked. This ad did not. We like the clear results of popularity polls and definitive answers. But the advertising world is rarely black and white.
Although the ads are anticipated by most of us (and the media who pander to us) for their “funny” value, advertisers – as businesspeople – have a bigger agenda. Let’s think about the real set of outcomes – a much broader list than simply entertainment.
Entertainment is one, certainly. As is memorability: Can’t remember the advertiser, and the ad is worthless. (For example, who remembers the company behind “herding cats”?).
Yet another outcome is brand recognition. As an advertiser, I know you have a short attention span. If I don’t show you my logo and product enough times, it won’t matter how good the ad is. You won’t remember. Repetition is key.
Finally, what does every ad really need to do? Get us to take action, of course! For example, a locally produced ad that features a really cool Power Rangers-inspired “map monster”, and doesn’t tell you where to get a Garmin GPS system, may very well fail the “call to action” test.
Depending on the advertiser in question, certain outcomes may be more important than others. The advertiser may have outcomes not even listed above. There are lots of emotions that may spur the human brain to action – pleasure, excitement, love are some of the positive ones. But negative ones work too – among the more powerful are fear, hatred, and disgust.
We easily forget how effective “negative ads” can be. Political ad campaign wonks consistently show dramatic opinion change using “amygdala-focused” ads versus the “shiny happy ads”. Why do you think they use negative ads even though we all hate them? They work.
But negative emotions can also drive positive results. Ads imploring us to help those devastated by a Christmas Day tsumani raised billions. And these ads were not pleasant. But they worked.
While I donâ€™t have any problem with brain research helping the advertising community better analyze their creative work, they must take better care drawing conclusions regarding “quality” or “effectiveness”.
As good as scientific measurement metrics will ever become (and they are getting much better and are making marketing in general much better), it seems to me science will never be a substitute for creative intuition.
You can also check out AOL’s popularity poll for this year’s SuperBowl ads, view them, and cast your own vote:
2007 SuperBowl Ad Live Rankings