On February 5, millions of people plopped down in front of their televisions to watch—in between occasional bursts of athletic action—one of the world's great competitions: the tournament of Super Bowl commercials. As we do every year, we watched and criticized and guffawed and picked winners. But this time, the ads also faced a new judge: neuromarketing—neuroscience applied to advertising.
For the first time in Super Bowl history, two scientists performed brain scans on people as they soaked in Super Bowl ads, which reportedly cost about $2.5 million for 30 seconds. The scans—done with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or fMRI—show which sections of the five brains became more active during the ads, thereby revealing what's really going on in people's heads.
The UCLA scientists, Marco Iacoboni and Joshua Freedman, did a quick analysis of the results and found that the most effective ad in Super Bowl XL was… "I'm Going to Disney World." The 36th version of Disney's famous campaign shows players on both teams (remember, there's also a football game) are shown before the Super Bowl practicing the famous line, which is usually recited for the cameras only after the game by the triumphant MVP.
The Disney ad stoked big responses in the orbito-frontal cortex and ventral striatum, two areas associated with feelings of reward, the parts of the brain that say, "I like that!" and "I want that!" It also raised a ruckus in areas filled with mirror neurons, cells that are crucial for empathizing with other people and forming bonds. In both of these important categories, Disney's ad far surpassed all of the others. In a distant second came the Sierra Mist ad, in which two airport-security screeners fleece a bottle of the soda from a poor passenger.
Perhaps the most notable finding was just how poorly most of the ads fared. The great majority of them not only failed to rouse the key reward and mirror-neuron areas, but they often stimulated bad ones. Almost all of the ads provoked their biggest responses in the amygdala, a tiny part of the brain that is mainly associated with fear and anxiety. "Some ads induced powerful emotions, but they were fear, anxiety, and threat," says Freedman, a psychology professor who started a company that consults to marketing firms based on fMRI scanning. "The ad actually hurts the brand."
One such ad was Michelob Ultra's, which depicts a friendly co-ed touch football game turned vicious. ("You were open, and now you are closed!" taunts one thug after laying out a model-thin female friend.) The ad sent the amygdala on high alert, with hardly a peep from other important regions.
Other ads misfired in different ways. GoDaddy.com's spot, in which a young, busty seductress tries to charm old, wrinkled corporate exec, "was one of the worst," says Iacoboni, a neuroscientist and expert on mirror neurons. "The mirror-neuron areas actually shut down," he says, chuckling.