Your brain's favorite Super Bowl ads may not be the ones you wanted to like the most.

The Burger King Whopperettes made for great water-cooler conversation, but were they appealing to mirror neurons? Courtesy of Burger King

If Grandma said the only worthwhile moment during the Super Bowl was the Dove self-esteem ad campaign, she was most likely lying through her false teeth. According to UCLA neuropsychiatry researcher Marco Iacoboni, the ads people claimed to like were probably not the same ones the reward centers of their brains appreciated.

Late Sunday night, Iacoboni announced preliminary results of an experiment he jokingly labeled “instant science.” He scanned the brains of people while they watched commercials from Super Bowl XL and observed their neural activity. Iacoboni and his team focused on activity in mirror neurons, which are associated with social behaviors such as imitation and empathy.

“Mirror neurons, we believe, are a key neural system for social behavior.” Iacoboni said. “I think that Super Bowl ads are really a social event, people talk about them for months before they get shown on TV, and then they discuss them—they get rated—and so we wanted to do this ‘instant science’ experiment.”

The team only scanned five subjects, and the whole experiment was performed very quickly: The first subject watched commercials only during halftime. Iacoboni called the experiment “messy” and said he would not be able to write a full paper from the research, but even with the small number of subjects and incomplete analysis, Iacoboni said he could determine which ads were most effective in eliciting a response from the mirror neuron system.

The Disney ad with NFL players practicing how they would say “I’m going to Disney World!” was a big winner among the ads Iacoboni tested. When the first two subjects watched the spot, their mirror neurons activated and reward centers lit up.

Iacoboni said Budweiser put out a mix of successful and unsuccessful ads.

“The Bud office ad—the one with the employee of the month or something— that was very effective,” he said. “On the other hand, the other Bud ad—the one on the secret fridge, remember, the fridge that flips around?—people said ‘Oh, that was hilarious. It was great.’ [But] we saw very little response from the two subjects that we analyzed last night.”

Iacoboni said one subject exemplified the discontinuity between the commercials people said they liked and those they neurally responded to. The women in question was unable to mask her innate inclination toward enjoying ads whose message went against her conscious and vocal political correctness.

“She came out of the scanner and she said all the right things, the things that you expected to hear from her,” he said. “For instance, she didn’t like any of those commercials in which females are treated mostly as objects of sexual desire. 

“But guess what? Her mirror neural regions were firing out like crazy when she saw those.”

Inversely, the same subject didn’t get a rise out of Dove’s campaign for self-esteem.

“That ad is really nice because it had a very important social message: You don’t have to be beautiful to be successful, and you don’t have to be insecure if you’re not beautiful,” Iacoboni said. “And she loved that one, and everybody loved it. We loved it, too. But guess what? Her brain didn’t react too much to that ad. All the regions that we think are important for social behavior, the reward system, mirror neuron system, they really didn’t show a strong response to that ad.”

Iacoboni said he didn’t see any glaring common factor between the ads that succeeded in affecting the brain. He also reiterated he would need to do a computer-aided mathematical analysis to determine if response can be predicted by a single factor or a combination of components. However, that kind of analysis takes time and patience, neither of which are needed in the immediately gratifying new field of “instant science.”

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Originally published February 7, 2006

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