This is your brain on a Super Bowl ad

Researchers release brain scans that show what feelings--if any--this year's ads triggered in viewers. Photos: Your brain on ads

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
2 min read
That was your brain on drugs. This is your brain on Federal Express' "Caveman" Super Bowl commercial--ugh.

Using brain-scan images of people who watched advertisements aired during Sunday's championship game, researchers can show which ads triggered various emotions in viewers, causing them to be fired up or emotionally flat. FedEx's ad supposedly fell flat.

Photos: Your brain on ads

The commercials that inspired the most engagement--meaning responses of fear, desire, conflict and reward--were Disney's "NFL Dreamers" and Sierra Mist's "Airport Security" ads, according to researchers from the University of California at Los Angeles's Ahmanson Lovelace Brain Mapping Center and FKF Applied Research, a lab that conducted the study and posted images and data online.

Every year at Super Bowl time, an unofficial, often more engaging, contest takes place between the 30-second commercials that air before, during and after the game. Companies like Pepsi, Anheuser-Busch, Disney and Careerbuilder.com pay megabucks for the chance to go down in the history of public opinion as the funniest, most dramatic or most shocking advertiser during the country's most-watched program. Eliciting emotion in a commercial can be considered a factor for positive remembrance--and with data on brain response, the competition could reach new heights.

The researchers at UCLA and FKF Applied Research used fMRI, or functional magnetic resonance imaging, to measure the activity of brain regions associated with key emotions in viewers. "NFL Dreamers" elicited strong responses in the orbito-frontal cortex and the ventral striatum, two brain regions associated with the processing of rewards, they said. Bud Light's "Employee Incentive Plan," in contrast, induced anxiety. FedEx's "Caveman" failed to trigger much activity at all.

However, most of the ads--including FedEx's--had one response in common: repelling viewers.

"Almost all the ads induced their greatest activity in the amygdala, a center of the brain most associated with detecting threats or danger," Joshua Freedman, a UCLA clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and co-founder of FKF Applied Research, said in a statement.