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Who really won during the Super Bowl?

Brain scans reveal that most million-dollar ads failed to connect with viewers, but one stands out as a clear winner.

Who really won during the Super Bowl? And the other winner of the Super Bowl is...Coke.

That's according to brain experts, who for the second time in two years, have studied the neurons firing inside people's gray matter while they watched Super Bowl commercials. FKF Applied Research, with the help of UCLA's Ahmanson Lovelace Brain Mapping Center, said that Coca-Cola's "Video Game" ad--a 60-second animated spot that promotes random acts of kindness--scored this year because it elicited the most positive emotions in subjects' brains.

"Coke's ad did well because it engaged a full range of emotions, including the mirror region, which is associated with connection and empathy," said Joshua Freedman, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at UCLA and co-founder of FKF Applied Research. "Asking someone what is going on in their brain is in some ways like asking them what is going on in their heart."

FKF studied 10 men and women ages 18 to 34 by using UCLA's functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) brain-imaging system. fMRI is a relatively new technology used to analyze activity, or blood flow, in various centers of the brain that govern people's desires, fears and other cognitive control centers. When specific areas of the brain are active, blood circulation and oxygen increase in those regions, and the imaging technology can detect that activity.

Aside from the relative triviality of Super Bowl ad responses, the technology is fueling a revolution in scientific understanding of the brain and human emotions. In the last five years, fMRI has helped neuroscientists study human choices and behavior, laying the groundwork for the understanding of how people make decisions. Freedman said that the science is now also informing other academic fields like economics, sociology and, of course, marketing.

Through brain imaging, for example, FKF has found that people typically ignore between a third and half of all commercials. And while the Super Bowl is known for its standout and pricey commercials (advertisers reportedly dropped $2.6 million on 30-second spots this year), the 2007 Super Bowl was no exception. "The majority (of ads) elicited very little response," Freedman said.

Top-ranking ads

Coca-Cola: "Video Game"
Doritos: "Live the Flavor"
Bud Light: "Hitchhiker"

Worst-ranking ads

Emerald Nuts: "Robert Goulet"
Honda: "CRV Crave"
Sprint: "Connectile Dysfunction"

Source: FKF Applied Research

The commercials that did fire up people's neurons were largely playing on human fears and anxieties, according to Freedman. That's a recipe for bad marketing, he said, because people typically filter out such commercials after their first viewing.

"This clearly was the year of the amygdala, the brain's 'threat detector,'" he said.

As a result, the big losers were ads like GM's "Robot," which shows a carmaking robot that becomes depressed when it loses its factory job. Another low scorer was Sprint's "Connectile Dysfunction"--a play on erectile dysfunction ads, but for broadband.

The worst commercial, according to FKF, was Emerald Nuts' commercial, which shows entertainer Robert Goulet messing with office workers' stuff while they're asleep.

So if these commercials spark anxiety so well, why aren't they more successful? Freedman said that the brain works in a modular fashion, and a person can be like the CEO of many little brains, weighing various responses in the background like, "Does this make me feel safe? Is this something I want? Will this make me more desirable?" In general, when people are anxious, they will push away whatever is making them feel that way.

In the positive column, FKF found that Doritos' "Live the Flavor" commercial ran neck and neck with Coca-Cola. Doritos' 30-second spot depicted two people--a guy in a car and a girl on the street (each with a bag of Doritos)--who become instantly smitten and then fumble around until they meet.

There's something to be said for chemistry.