Temple takes a scientific look at responses to Super Bowl commercials

At Temple University Hospital, William Hampton helps study participant Daniel Craig gets ready to watch Super Bowl commercials while he is in an MRI machine on Feb. 6, 2014. ( APRIL SAUL / Staff )
At Temple University Hospital, William Hampton helps study participant Daniel Craig gets ready to watch Super Bowl commercials while he is in an MRI machine on Feb. 6, 2014. ( APRIL SAUL / Staff )
Posted: February 21, 2014

 Was it the pistachios? The Muppets in the Toyota?

The Cheerios girl angling for a puppy?

You may think you know which Super Bowl ad you liked most. But through the efforts of Temple University scholars and a company called Innerscope Research, the picture has been clarified with the tools of hard science.

As it has done for several years, Boston-based Innerscope measured certain physiological characteristics of people watching the much-ballyhooed commercials, including heart rates and breathing patterns. This year, the company also invited the Temple team to put ad-watchers in an MRI machine, measuring brain activity with a type of scan called a functional MRI.

"We used the fMRI data to open the black box of the brain," said Angelika Dimoka, director of the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple's Fox School of Business.

The researchers found that the two kinds of measurements were complementary, said Carl Marci, Innerscope's cofounder and chief science officer. He said ads that provoked a strong response in the physiological measures also elicited significant activity in three key brain areas: the amygdala, which processes emotion; the hippocampus, which plays a crucial role in memory formation; and the lateral prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision-making.

Marci, a neuropsychiatrist by training, sought to put into words why certain ads scored well.

"Ads that performed well, they tell a compelling story," he said. "They use relatable characters. They take people on an emotional journey, and they integrate the brand product and service into that story."

Marci said a prime example was the Cheerios ad, in which the girl learns she is going to have a baby brother when her father arranges four pieces of cereal on the table. She responds by adding a fifth piece, in a bid to get a puppy.

On the other hand, there was no emotional engagement with an ad for WeatherTech automotive floor liners, Marci said. The commercial features a succession of experts saying American factories cannot make high-quality products at low cost. Then it lists the steps WeatherTech took to accomplish exactly that feat.

"It's just a list of things," Marci said. "This doesn't take you anywhere. It doesn't move you."

The study was sponsored by Time Warner Inc., one of Innerscope's clients, which also include Procter & Gamble and Campbell Soup Co.

The research was not necessarily intended to identify ads that will induce consumers to purchase more products, at least not in the short term. The goal was more to determine which ads engaged consumers' attention and provoked an emotional response, Dimoka said.

The physiological measurements were taken from 80 viewers as they watched the game live in New York City and Boston. Data were collected on 56 ads, not including movie trailers and local spots. In addition to heart rate and breathing patterns, researchers also measured skin conductance - electrical activity on the skin.

A subset of 27 ads was then used in the subsequent fMRI study at Temple, including 10 top and bottom performers as indicated by the first round of measurements, along with seven additional ads of interest.

Among the 20 participants in the 90-minute fMRI part of the study was Daniel Craig, a Temple senior from Allentown.

He said the commercials were projected into his field of vision with a system of mirrors, so he could watch them while lying in the large, tubular MRI machine. The sound from the commercials was piped into his ears via earphones, which also helped mask the background drone of the machine.

Craig did not learn the results of his own measurements, but his verbal recollections of the experience may give advertisers pause.

He said he had not paid attention to many of the ads while watching the Super Bowl live, and after watching them in the MRI machine he was unimpressed.

"There wasn't one like, wow, I have to watch that again," Craig said. "You'd think they would be tailoring these commercials for the ability to become viral."


Super Bowl Ad Science

Researchers measured viewers' heart rate, breathing patterns and brain activity as they watched ads. Below are some of the top and bottom performers as measured by viewers' level of engagement and emotional response (not ordered by rank).

High performers

Wonderful Pistachios (Part 1) Stephen Colbert touts the nuts with the help of a feathered friend.

Cheerios "Gracie" Girl negotiates for a puppy.

Volkswagen "Wings" Auto engineers earn their wings.

Toyota "Joyride" Muppet musicians take a ride.

Hyundai "Sixth Sense" Automatic brakes rescue teen driver with wandering attention.

Low performers

WeatherTech "Made in America" Countering expert opinion, firm makes automotive floor liners in U.S.

Bud Light Platinum "Equalizer" Images of beer bottles light up on high-tech sound system.

Heinz "Happy and You Know It" Legions of burger fans squirt ketchup to music.

TurboTax "Love Hurts" Boy loses in love, wins with tax return.

SodaStream "People" Scarlett Johansson adds fizz to soda-making equipment.

SOURCE: Innerscope Research Inc. and Temple University


tavril@phillynews.com

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