Small 'neural focus groups' predict anti-smoking ad success

April 25, 2012
Small 'neural focus groups' predict anti-smoking ad success

Brain scans of a small group of people can predict the actions of entire populations, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Michigan, the University of Oregon and the University of California at Los Angeles.

The findings are relevant to political advertising, commercial market research and public health campaigns, and broaden the use of brain imaging from a diagnostic to a .

As opposed to the wisdom of the , the study suggests that the neurological reactions of a few—reactions that people are not even consciously aware of and that differ from the opinions they express—can predict the responses of many other people to ad campaigns promoting specific behaviors.

"Brain responses to ads forecasted the ads' success when other predictors failed," said Emily Falk, director of the U-M Communication Neuroscience Lab and lead author of the study, which appears online in Psychological Science.

"Our findings could help design better health campaigns. This is a key step in reducing the number of smokers and reducing deaths from cancer, heart disease and other smoking-related illnesses."

The findings, she said, might also help produce more effective political campaign ads and provide a neural roadmap to why some videos, fashions, behaviors and ideas go viral, moving from one person to many thousands of others via social media.

Falk conducted the study with Elliot Berkman of Oregon and Matthew Lieberman of UCLA. The researchers were supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

For the study, the researchers recruited 31 heavy smokers with a strong desire to quit, and examined their neural responses to three anti-smoking ad campaigns, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). All of the ads directly urged viewers to call the National Cancer Institute's tobacco quit-line (1-800-QUIT-NOW).

The video will load shortly
Samples of anti-smoking ads

Following the fMRI, participants rated the effectiveness of the ads they had just viewed in a variety of ways. The researchers compared their brain scans to their reports on the ads' effectiveness.

To obtain population-level measures, the researchers compared the number of calls to the tobacco quit-line in the month before and after each media campaign first aired in three different media markets.

When asked what they thought of the ads, participants rated Campaign B the highest, followed by Campaign A and then Campaign C. Industry experts familiar with the campaigns also disliked Campaign C. The three campaigns used very different strategies. Raters found Campaign C annoying and guessed that it would be ineffective. By contrast, Campaigns A and B resonated with participants, but in the end were less effective in actually driving calls to 1-800-QUIT-NOW.

But brain scans, which focused on the medial pre-frontal cortex, an area of the brain identified in earlier studies as linked to positive responses to persuasive messages, showed a completely different order, with Campaign C eliciting the strongest response.

At the level, each ad campaign led to increases in call volume to the quit-smoking line, compared with a no-media control month before the launch of each campaign. The increases ranged from 2.8 times to 32 times higher than the control month, and the researchers found that Campaign C led to the highest increases, followed by Campaign B and lastly Campaign A—just the opposite of the participants' guesses but precisely the same as their showed.

"It seems that the brain is picking up on important features of these ads, but we're not sure what these features are yet," said Falk, assistant professor of communication studies and a faculty associate at the U-M Institute for Social Research. "We're doing follow up studies now to translate what the brain is telling us about how to design better messages."

This study broadens the use of neuroscience data from predicting individual behavior to predicting the responses of much larger groups of people.

"It seems that the brain can predict the responses of entire populations to ad campaigns," Falk said. "The behavior of people whose brains are never examined may be inferred from the brains of a small 'neural focus group.'

"These findings could help us improve the success of campaigns. In the long run, we hope this will help us fight cancer and other preventable diseases."

Explore further: CDC: Ads spark huge increase to quit smoking line

More information: Falk's Communications Neuroscience Lab: cn.isr.umich.edu/index.html

Berkman's Social and Affective Neuroscience Lab: sanlab.uoregon.edu/SAN_Lab.html

Lieberman's Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab: www.scn.ucla.edu

Related Stories

CDC: Ads spark huge increase to quit smoking line

March 30, 2012
(AP) -- More than twice as many people called a toll-free number to help them quit smoking a week after the launch of a $54 million ad campaign that shows graphic images of diseased smokers, federal health officials said ...

Positive media campaigns help minorities put down cigarettes

April 29, 2011
While African-American smokers are less likely to receive quitting advice from their doctors or use quit aids, media campaigns that offer positive encouragement can have an impact on getting them to quit, finds a new study.

Anti-tobacco TV ads help adults stop smoking, study finds

April 19, 2012
Anti-tobacco television advertising helps reduce adult smoking, according to a study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago's Institute for Health Research and Policy -- but some ads may be more effective ...

CDC launching graphic anti-smoking ad campaign

March 15, 2012
(AP) -- Tobacco taxes and smoking bans haven't budged the U.S. smoking rate in years. Now the government is trying to shock smokers into quitting with a graphic nationwide advertising campaign.

Recommended for you

Ketamine for depression encouraging, but questions remain around long-term use

July 27, 2017
A world-first systematic review into the safety of ketamine as a treatment for depression, published in the prestigious Lancet Psychiatry, shows the risks of long-term ketamine treatment remain unclear.

Researchers crack the smile, describing three types by muscle movement

July 27, 2017
The smile may be the most common and flexible expression, used to reveal some emotions, cover others and manage social interactions that have kept communities secure and organized for millennia.

Even babies can tell who's the boss, UW research says

July 27, 2017
The charismatic colleague, the natural leader, the life of the party - all are personal qualities that adults recognize instinctively. These socially dominant types, according to repeated studies, also tend to accomplish ...

Infants know what we like best, study finds

July 27, 2017
Behind the chubby cheeks and bright eyes of babies as young as 8 months lies the smoothly whirring mind of a social statistician, logging our every move and making odds on what a person is most likely to do next, suggests ...

DREAMers at greater risk for mental health distress

July 27, 2017
Immigrants who came to the United States illegally as small children and who meet the requirements of the Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, more commonly known as DREAMers, are at risk for mental health ...

Negativity, be gone—new online tool can retrain your brain

July 27, 2017
Anxiety and depression can have devastating effects on people's lives. In some cases, the mental disorders lead to isolation, poverty and poor physical health, things that often cascade to future generations.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.