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Researchers Get a Super Handle on Ads That Work

A study at UCLA employs brain scans to gauge responses to the $2.5-million, 30-second television commercials during the big game.

BUSINESS; Business Desk; Part C; Pg. 1

February 6, 2006 Monday

Julie Tamaki, Times Staff Writer

Every advertiser would love to know what runs through a viewer's head when he watches a television commercial -- and on Super Bowl Sunday, a group of UCLA researchers had the answer.

Their study measured the emotional response of a human brain as it was bombarded by some of the most creative and expensive ads Madison Avenue has to offer.

Advertisers paid about $2.5 million to air a 30-second spot during Sunday's broadcast. If preliminary results from an experiment conducted by Dr. Joshua Freedman and his colleagues at UCLA are any indicator, some got more for their millions than others.

How did the ads measure up -- at least according to the brain of Fred Kipperman, a 36-year-old attorney from Santa Monica?

Michelob beer: big.

Sierra Mist soda: decent.

Bud Light: flat.

Researchers plan to use Kipperman's responses to compile a list of the most- and least-engaging Super Bowl ads based on the activity they triggered in the human brain.

That activity is measured by the flow of blood in portions of the brain involved in emotions such as wanting, sexual arousal, fear and indecision.

Freedman said Kipperman's brain response matched his verbal response to the ads about 70% of the time. "When he said he liked something, usually the area of his brain lit up that's associated with liking."

"But in about 30% of the cases, what [Kipperman] reported looked very different than the major activity" in his brain, Freedman said.

Freedman is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA and co-founder of FKF Applied Research, a privately funded company that uses a functional magnetic resonance imager (fMRI) technology to study how people make choices. Sunday's experiment, a collaboration between FKF and the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center at UCLA, represents the latest attempt by researchers to use fMRI to gain insight into how marketing affects the human brain.

A Caltech team previously used the device to investigate how the brain responded to celebrity faces and designer products. UCLA researchers have also tested how Democrats and Republicans reacted to the faces of presidential candidates.

On Sunday, Kipperman was one of five people who participated in the Super Bowl ad experiment.

Outfitted with a headset and goggles, Kipperman watched more than a dozen ads as he lay in a fMRI machine.

He saw Jessica Simpson's Pizza Hut pitch, Leonard Nimoy's ad for Aleve painkiller and Jackie Chan's plug for Diet Pepsi. But it was a Michelob beer spot that featured a twisted version of a touch football game that garnered the biggest reaction from Kipperman.

"The funny ads grabbed my attention," Kipperman said.

Kipperman's positive response to the Michelob ad was confirmed by the activity in his brain recorded by the researchers. That's not always the case, however.

"There is a little bit of a disconnect between what people say they like and ... what you see when you look at brain responses," said Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist with the brain mapping center who was also involved in Sunday's experiment.

When it comes to Super Bowl commercials, advertisers have traditionally worried more about greenbacks than gray matter.

Last year, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, Super Bowl advertisers collectively experienced a 27% jump in website visits, rising from 17.6 million unique visitors on Super Bowl Sunday to 22.3 million the following day. Fox Sports, and Verizon Wireless experienced some of the healthiest growth rates the day after the game.

Whether the UCLA findings will jibe with results from an untold number of focus groups and advertising experts remains to be seen.

"Is the brain going to be the better predictor, or is the focus group going to be the better predictor?" Iacoboni asked. "We're going to find out."