Food Ads: How Brains Respond


chocolate_chipIn Why some just cannot resist food, the BBC reports on research showing that individuals respond differently to food images.

Scientists have discovered why some people just can’t resist food. They used scans to show the reward centres in some people’s brains are particularly sensitive to food advertising and product packaging.

The story is also covered by The Guardian in Craving for food lights up the brain:

The study identifies how this relationship operates in the brain. It shows that individuals with higher reward sensitivity show increased activity in five key areas of the brain implicated in motivation or reward, and that this increase happens when they simply look at pictures of appetising food. The scientists, led by John Beaver, used brain scanning technology known as functional magnetic resonance imaging to analyse the brain activity of 12 men and women…

The study found that, shown pictures of the appetising food, individuals with higher reward sensitivity had up to twice the level of activity in the five areas of the brain implicated with reward – known as the neural network – compared with those with lower reward sensitivity.

The reward system is important in decision making as the brain evaluates the “value” of different options. The work shows, not suprisingly, that some individuals respond much more strongly to appealing foods.

Advertisers use “food stylists” to prepare food items for photographers (who are themselves often specialists in creating food images). Common sense tells us that more appetizing images will sell more product. With this new research, though, we have a better understanding of the mechanism for improving sales. Creating the most appealing possible image will cause the maximum response in those parts of the brain associated with motivation and reward. Although the study didn’t prove that there is a link between brain activation levels and actual consumption, it seems likely that the individuals with the highest levels of reward center activation would be the most likely to engage in behaviors like purchasing and consuming the items that produced that brain activity.

From a neuromarketing standpoint, perhaps the more interesting part of the finding is that some individuals are NOT greatly affected by images of appealing, tasty food. To reach those individuals, marketers may need to add other elements to their campaign – nutrition benefits, non-food images like happy families enjoying the product, etc. From a neuroeconomics standpoint, the value circuitry of these individuals may need some other kind of activation to cause a purchase decision. Still, one can surmise that the highest-volume consumers are quite likely the ones who ARE most affected by food images… so don’t fire your food stylist, and keep those yummy images coming!

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