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Small “Neural Focus Groups” Predict Anti-Smoking Ad Campaign Success

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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, 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 predictive tool.

As opposed to the wisdom of the crowd, 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, first author of the study, which appears online in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. Falk directs the University of Michigan Communication Neuroscience Lab.

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

“If people are making decisions based on what focus groups tell them, here’s an important brain region saying, ‘No, spend your money a different way,’” Matthew Lieberman said. “If I were deciding on an advertising campaign, I would want to know which ads are activating this region the most — that is where I would want to spend my money.”

“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,” Falk said.

The findings 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.

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 the ads directly urged viewers to call the National Cancer Institute’s tobacco quit line (1-800-QUIT-NOW).

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 population 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 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 brain scans 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,” Falk said. “We’re doing follow up studies now to translate what the brain is telling us about how to design better messages.”

This new research represents “the first thing you could call a neural focus group,” Lieberman said.

One reason focus groups can be misleading, he said, is that people often do not know what motivates their own behavior.

“Our brain is built to generate reasons for our actions,” Lieberman said, “and we think the reasons we come up with must be true. We believe our own reasons with an intensity that is out of proportion to their accuracy. In this study, we are bypassing people’s self-reports and getting at a form of hidden wisdom in the brain.”

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

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For more information about this study, please contact Emily Falk at ebfalk@umich.edu or Matthew Lieberman at lieber@ucla.edu.