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The brain says Disney Super Bowl ads the best

Thursday, February 09, 2006

By Mark Roth, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The ventromedial prefrontal cortex has spoken: The top Super Bowl ad this year was the Disney World spot featuring several Steelers and Seahawks players practicing the famous line: "I'm going to Disney World."

This may come as a surprise to people who follow the annual pilgrimage to the heights of the advertising stratosphere, where a 30-second spot cost an average of $2.4 million this year.

USA Today's poll showed that the Bud Light "secret fridge" ad was the audience favorite, while a survey by The Wall Street Journal named the FedEx caveman ad. But neither of those polls had the ventromedial prefrontal cortex going for them, let alone the orbitofrontal cortex or the amygdala.

These multisyllabic terms all refer to parts of the brain, and that's what differentiated the Super Bowl ad measurements done by FKF Applied Research and UCLA's Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center.

To mimic the Super Bowl viewing audience, researchers took three men and two women between the ages of 23 and 37 and conducted functional magnetic resonance imaging of their brains while they watched the Super Bowl ads.

They focused on three areas of the brain associated with desire, reward and positive connections to others, and three areas that signal conflict, fear and trying to repress negative reactions, said Dr. Joshua Freedman, a UCLA psychiatrist.

Based on those scans, the Disney World ad was the hands down winner in the intensity of positive brain signals. A close and somewhat surprising second went to the Sierra Mist ad, in which an airport security crew swipes a Sierra Mist from a passenger by pretending it is setting off their detector.

As for the winners in the other polls?

The Bud Light ad, in which a man builds a revolving refrigerator to hide his Bud Lights from his thirsty friends, only to have it rotate into the adjacent apartment, failed to get much reaction at all in the brain scans.

And the FedEx ad, in which a caveman tries to send a message strapped to the leg of a pterodactyl, only to see it eaten by a dinosaur, not only scored low on the positive scale, but showed a huge surge of fright at the end of the commercial when another dinosaur suddenly crushes the caveman.

Other surprising flops in the brain scans: The sensitive Dove ad, featuring a heartwarming message of support for young girls; and the sentimental Budweiser Clydesdale ad, showing how a colt was able to pull a heavy beer wagon out of the barn.

Interesting as the brain scans may be, they raise the question of why five people's gray matter ought to count for more than the opinions of scores of people who watched the ads.

One reason, Dr. Freedman said, is that our brains are a much more stable and universal indicator of what we think than our expressed opinions are.

"It's a lot like talking to people when they're leaving a movie theater," he said. "They all saw the same movie, but that little bit of interpretation that is going on makes it seem like they saw a lot of different movies.

"But if you get below the surface of people's statements, there's a huge amount of consistency on the way people's brains work."

Another common problem shown by previous research, Dr. Freedman said, is that people tend to suppress their negative emotions, especially if they know they're supposed to be having an enjoyable experience.

In fact, one of the most surprising findings was that almost every Super Bowl ad created more negative reactions than positive ones, based on measuring the blood flow to different parts of the brain.

Even the Disney World ad generated stronger feelings of being threatened than of any of the positive emotional scales.

One possible reason, said Dr. Freedman: "That ad was about people shooting high [to win the Super Bowl and go to Disney World], and some of them were not going to make it. It tapped into people's dreams, on the one hand, but also their realistic sense that that was never going to happen for some players."

And for all you Steelers' fans whose amygdalas went into anxiety overdrive when Hines Ward whispered, "I'm going to Disney World" -- shame on you.

You should have trusted your ventromedial prefrontal cortex.