Super Bowl Ads: Brain Dead


While sports analysts pick over the performances of the Colts and Bears, the real work begins for advertising pundits: declaring winners and losers among the Super Bowl commercials. And this year, once again, we have brain scan data to help compare the Super Bowl Ads.

Researchers at the University of California Los Angeles scanned the brains of five men and five women between the ages of 18 and 34 as they watched Super Bowl ads to measure the emotional impact. Participants viewed the commercials through goggles as they lay inside a donut-shaped machine called a functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, machine.

The fMRI images show increased blood flow to specific areas of the brain that are activated by outside stimuli. Dr. Josh Freedman, one of the researchers who conducted the brain scans, said he saw a lot of activity in the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with anxiety and fear. (via Reuters, Super Bowl ads fumble, brain scans show)

We’re not too surprised by the findings. This year’s crop of Super Bowl ads seemed lackluster even before any neuromarketing analysis, and many of them were rather dark in character. One ad that the UCLA researchers singled out as anxiety-causing was from General Motors. In it, a rather cute assembly-line robot makes a mistake, gets booted off the line, takes a series of demeaning jobs, and finally leaps from a bridge. The image of a depressed robot hitting the water is indeed striking, but one wonders what GM ad execs were thinking when they approved that downer of an ad. It’s nice to know that quality comes first, but do you really want to suggest that a worker (even a mechanical one) who makes a small error is discarded and sent on his way to suicide?

On the GM ad, neuroscientist Freedman notes, “That one got people’s attention. But they did not feel good about the message. It produced big spikes of anxiety and perhaps … feelings of economic insecurity.” Another ad that the brain scans showed caused anxiety was one which showed Britney Spears’s ex-husband and rapper wannabe Kevin Federline getting barked at by a manager in a fast food restaurant. This ad was actually rather funny, but apparently the fleeting nature of financial success and the fear of working in an entry-level fast food job hit too close to home for some of the fMRI subjects.

The scans showed that the Honda Super Bowl ad produced a lower level of brain activation than when subjects were viewing a blank screen. The developers of that ad will probably have some explaining to do. Indeed, both Honda ads ranked near the bottom of USA Today’s Ad Meter.

Career Builder probably added to the insecurity of viewers. They abandoned their hilarious and light-hearted chimpanzee commercials to air some rather strange commercials that I can only describe as “Lord of the Flies with business people.” These commercials portrayed business-types engaged in jungle warfare using office supplies for weapons. An interesting idea, to be sure, but it’s a lot darker than their entertaining chimp series. These ads polled fairly well, with one of them cracking USA Today’s top ten. We couldn’t find UCLA brain scan data for these ads, but we suspect they produced a bit of an anxiety reaction. The chimps get our vote.

Even GoDaddy failed to surprise, shock, or do much of anything. Last year, their ad was declared a loser by UCLA’s brain scans, but was highly successful in driving traffic to the firm’s website. (See Super Bowl Ads: GoDaddy Girl 1, Neuroscientists 0.) This year’s ad began as a straight product pitch, took a peek inside “the Marketing Department” where one found the GoDaddy Girl in the midst of wild revelry, and closed with, “Everybody wants to work in Marketing.” OK, there’s a mild chuckle there, but somehow I expected more from a firm that has earned its reputation from its Super Bowl ads. The second showing (yep, they repeated that clunker in the fourth quarter) earned a “most disliked” designation from USA Today.

All in all, we think the brain scans match reality in Super Bowl 2007’s crop of ads: they weren’t that good overall, and there were a surprising number of ads that were either overtly or subtly anxiety-producing. As the Chicago Bears are probably saying this morning, there’s always next year…

  1. Blake says

    I think Budweiser is going to lead the polls for the best commercial again this year. However, there were a few more contenders this year, in particular I like the robot from General Motors.

  2. Ken Tolbert says

    A bunch of lean manufacturing guys at the Evolving Excellence blog are thrashing the GM commercial as being disrespectful to robots. Actually they don’t like robots either, but they say it is indicative of how little value GM places on human potential. Check it out:

  3. Lani says

    The manufacturing geeks over at the Evolving Excellence blog ( are thrashing the GM commercial as well. Fundamentally they say the reason Toyota has such high quality is due to their respect for people, which creates employee continuous improvement suggestion programs, which robots can?t do. Instead of firing someone (or a robot) over a dropped screw, Toyota would get a team of people together to figure out what process failure led to the screw being dropped? not canning tens of years of experience for a mistake that probably wasn?t the person?s (robot?s) fault. It?s a good read:

  4. Alonso says

    I’m not too surprised that this year’s superbowl ads appealed to people’s fear. It seems to be a common theme recently among propaganda experts and it works. I’m sure that those commecials will have a lasting effect, though not positive.

  5. NeuroGuy says

    Lani, that’s kind of the feeling I came away with – do you really want to be perceived as the kind of company that fires someone for a small error? Even though the robot was a machine, it was clearly anthropomorphic and had feelings. A better plot line might have been the other robots helping out the klutzy one to become error-free. The ad was a real miscue, IMO, even though it ranked fairly high in USAToday’s poll.

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