Brain Scans: How Super Bowl Ads Fumbled

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Denizens of the Windy City aren 't the only ones waking up a bit disappointed this morning; some of Madison Avenue 's best and brightest minds in advertising might be feeling as if Peyton Manning and the Colts have gotten one by them as well. After spending $2.6 million for a precious 30 seconds of airtime, most companies fell flat in their effort to entertain, engage, and perhaps even entice the 90 million-plus Bowl viewers to buy their product. Researchers at UCLA 's Ahmanson Lovelace Brain Mapping Center scanned the brains of 10 volunteers who viewed 33 of the long-awaited commercials that aired Sunday night, and were a bit surprised by the results.

Fewer than 20% of the ads, says Dr. Joshua Freedman, one of the neuroscientists involved in the study, triggered nerve activity in the ventral striatum, or the reward and satisfaction areas of the brain — those areas that are known to be involved in making associations and forming connections with people or things. (By comparison, over 50% of last year 's Super Bowl ads activated these regions.) The majority of this year 's commercials, on the other hand, predominantly activated anxiety regions of the brain, centered around the amygdala, the hub of our fear and emotional responses. "To me, that means these ads are going to be unsuccessful," says Freedman. "This group of ads as a whole had a violence associated with them that didn 't connect with people as being humorous or harmless. Something about them made people not feel that it was all in good fun." Whether it was a dour-looking hitchhiker holding an axe and a pack of Budweiser, or a group of bankers in masks in a mock hold up of its customers, Sunday night 's offerings contained a decidedly dark message that, according to UCLA 's brain scans, may not translate into 'buy me. '

Normally, says Freedman, with effective ads scientists expect to see multiple areas of the brain light up — everything from the fear and anxiety regions to the reward areas, as people weigh and balance what they are seeing and how they are interpret what they see. "Typically what you see is different parts of the brain activated at the same time," he says. "The big surprise this year was just seeing the amygdala activated alone in so many ads."

The ads that elicited the strongest activity in the reward regions included Coca-Cola 's video game spot, in which the leather-jacketed hero "gives a little love" and spreads goodwill rather than violence. And, in a sign of the emergence of user-generated content, Frito-Lay 's Doritos ad, which was both created by a consumer and voted on by consumers in an online contest, also ranked high as a trigger for the brain 's reward circuit. The ads that elicited little response in the ventral striatum, according to the UCLA study, included Robert Goulet 's turn as an office gremlin for Emerald Nuts and Sprint 's commercial for "connectile dysfunction."

Imaging studies like this one, says Freedman, are constantly providing important information about how we process our environment and make decisions, and could become essential tools in shaping the products we see and buy in the future. If this year 's Super Bowl ads are any indication, however, it seems that Madison Avenue may have to rethink its playbook.