Researchers at the University of California Los Angeles scanned the brains of five men and five women between the ages of 18 and 34 as they watched Super Bowl ads to measure the emotional impact. Participants viewed the commercials through goggles as they lay inside a donut-shaped machine called a functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, machine.
The fMRI images show increased blood flow to specific areas of the brain that are activated by outside stimuli. Dr. Josh Freedman, one of the researchers who conducted the brain scans, said he saw a lot of activity in the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with anxiety and fear.
"We saw huge activity going on in the amygdala -- the threat detector -- so much so that we had to go back and double check our software," Freedman said in a telephone interview.
Among the top anxiety-producing ads, he said, was one for General Motors aimed at drawing attention to the automaker's 100,000 mile warranty. The ad features a robot working on the line at an assembly plant until he drops a screw forcing the line to shut down. Angry workers kick the robot off the line, rendering the robot jobless. "It's got everyone at GM obsessed with quality," the ad concluded.
"That one got people's attention. But they did not feel good about the message. It produced big spikes of anxiety and perhaps ... feelings of economic insecurity," Freedman said.
A controversial ad for Nationwide Insurance featuring Britney Spears' estranged husband, Kevin Federline, as a failed rap star working in a fast-food eatery also generated anxiety and feelings of insecurity, he said.
The most ineffective ad was from Honda, which showed participants were less engaged during the ad than they were when they looked at a blank screen.
Even ads for Budweiser beer, traditionally known for good-humored advertising, generated negative emotions, fMRI scans showed.
The commercials that produced the most positive feelings were those by Coke and Doritos, Freedman said. But compared with last year's lot of commercials, this year's Super Bowl ads fumbled.
HOW CAN THEY TELL?
Each area of the brain has specific functions. Some areas generate emotions, like hope, trust or fear, while others process information. When an area of the brain becomes active, the vascular systems shunts additional blood to that area and the fMRI measures the increase.
So when the amygdala, the region of the brain that controls "fight or flight", is engaged there is an increase of blood to that area and is detected by the scan, showing in real time what is happening inside the brain.
This technique enables scientists to watch the brain while it processes information.
Such scans can provide valuable information to advertisers. Businesses probably will use these tools first, said UCLA's Dr. Marco Iacoboni, who also conducted fMRI scans during the football game.
"Politics will come next. I'm pretty sure some (politician) will do something with this in the next presidential election," he said.
"You can't trust people to say what they really think and there are a lot of reasons for this. There's social pressure. They try to say things so they'll look smart. In focus-group situations, people tend to imitate each other. And people are not very in touch with understanding why they make the decisions they make," Iacoboni said.
Kate Sirkin, global research director for Chicago-based Starcom MediaVest group, said she does not doubt the credibility of information revealed by fMRI scans.
"I think they tell the truth, but we've found we get similar findings with paper and pen research," she said. "And the technology is too expensive to be practical."