Just about all of the fMRI studies we’ve seen or heard about are for commercial advertisers, but it looks like the neuromarketing bug has bitten the smoking cessation crowd. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have conducted a pilot study of brain activity in subjects viewing anti-smoking PSAs:

Functional MRI of Brain Response to Anti-Smoking Advertisements
Daniel Langleben, MD

This is a pilot study for the larger center project titled Evaluating Anti-Tobacco public service announcements (PSAs). The purpose of this study is to evaluate the feasibility of using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to study brain response to anti-smoking PSAs. In preliminary studies, researchers used perfusion fMRI to detect increased activity in the components of the brain limbic system in opiate-dependent patients in response to a ten-minute heroin-related video. The results indicated that (1) Brain response to media can be measured with fMRI; (2) Brain response to media varies across target audiences and (3) Specific structures mediating strong interest could be activated in the target population but not the controls. Collaborators at Penn have also used fMRI to detect differential response to the emotional image content. This pilot study takes an important first step towards exploring the feasibility of using magnetic resonance signal as a marker of cognitive (e.g. attention) and emotional (e.g. arousal) responses to different PSAs. Results from this would allow interpretation of the brain response to a PSA in terms of known brain localization of cognitive functions.

Overall, this seems to be a major, well-funded effort. Multiple studies have evaluated or will study “message sensation value,” “story-based belief change,” and other aspects of PSA marketing. One hopes that a key part of the eventual fMRI study will be to correlate these variables, like activation levels in different brain areas, with ultimate behavior – in this case, quitting smoking. It’s no surprise that the pilot study found that there WERE differences in activation levels between subjects and between different PSAs – the important thing is to find out what those differences mean, and which ones correlate with behavioral change. This would benefit marketing professionals of all kinds – few marketers face a task as daunting as overcoming a physical addiction. At the moment, though, it looks like the work is focused mainly on measuring levels of attention and arousal. While these are no doubt important – an ad that scores poorly in both attention and arousal is probably not going to be effective – they won’t tell the whole story of which ads lead to behavior change. Still, it’s nice to see a well-regarded university like Penn studying advertisements using fMRI. The work should be of high quality, and, even better, the results are likely to be published for all to see. (Thanks to the Neuroethics & Law Blog who blogged this last week.)

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