Brain scans predict effectiveness of anti-smoking ads

Surveys, polls, focus groups, and now fMRI scans? A new study shows that neural activity can predict responses to public service campaigns better than simply asking people what they think.

What do people like, buy, and do? Companies and health organizations spend millions on surveys, polls, and focus groups in attempts to figure this out. Turns out those techniques aren’t that accurate.

But you know what is? Brain scans, suggests a new study showing how neural activity predicts people’s responses to public service ads about cigarette smoking. ScienceNOW reports.

The neurons in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) at the front of your brain plays a role in self-reflection, thinking of what you value, and identity. This region’s activity increases when you see or try to determine the value of something, as it relates to you.

A team, led by Emily Falk at the University of Michigan and Matthew Lieberman at the University of California, Los Angeles wanted to see if MPFC activity could predict behavior.

  1. They focused on the effectiveness of 3 ad campaigns aimed at getting smokers to call the quit hotline of the National Cancer Institute.
  2. They took fMRI scans of brain activity in 30 heavy smokers – who intended to quit – as they watched the 3 ads.
  3. Then the participants were asked to rank the campaigns according to how effective they thought those would be for the public.
  4. And, population measures of the success of each campaign were computed by comparing call volume to 1-800-QUIT-NOW in the month before and after the launch of each campaign.

Participants thought one particular ad on the difficulty of quitting – similar to one featuring a woman who imagines jumping out of a window to retrieve a lit cigarette – would be the most effective at getting people to call the hotline.

A humorous ad – similar to one about a man learning to drink coffee without a cigarette – was ranked second. Another humorous ad – similar to one with finger puppets – would be the least effective, they thought. (The actual ads used in the research were like these, but not these exact ones.)

HOWEVER the brain scans showed a different pattern than the self-reported predictions. Neural activity predicted the population response while the self-report judgments didn’t.

Turns out, the most activity in the MPFC was elicited by the puppet ad (a 32-fold increase), followed by the jumping woman (11.5-fold), and then the man drinking coffee (2.3-fold).

"Focus groups aren't a bad thing, [but] they aren't telling the whole story," Lieberman says.

The work was published in Psychological Science this month.

[Via ScienceNOW]

Image by aloshbennett via Flickr

This post was originally published on