This is your brain on advertising

It’s well known that focus groups aren’t very reliable. Perhaps they’re a bit better than monkeys throwing darts, but conventional wisdom says not to put too much trust in a focus group when designing an advertising campaign. The conventional wisdom is only half-right. You shouldn’t put much trust in a focus group…unless you’re scanning their brains, in which case you’ll be able to make excellent predictions by monitoring the activity level in their medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). If you point between your eyes on your forward, you’ll be roughly pointing to your MPFC.

In both focus groups and a controlled experiment encouraging students to change their behavior (wear more sunscreen), what participants said they were going to do after the session had very little relationships to what they actually did. However, the amount of activity in their MPFC could predict both whether or not the advertising campaign would be successful and whether or not they would actually change their behavior.

Now, the fact that advertising changes our behavior in ways we are not consciously aware of should be be frightening enough, but it gets even worse when we look at what the MPFC does normally. The MPFC is the brain region most responsible for our sense of self. I mentioned the MPFC was between your eyes, you might even think of it as your third “I.” (forgive the pun). Effective advertising changes the way in which you think about yourself. A quick survey of actual advertising confirms that advertisers are well aware of this fact. (Celebrity endorsements exist for this very reason, because you want to be like that person. Advertising focuses on creating feelings and images of how you could be instead of giving new information about the product).

In my economics classes we literally spend weeks talking about how taxes distort the things people buy, but I’ve never heard an economist object to the way in which advertising distorts what we want. Of the two, I find the the distortion of what I want far more troubling than a tax that might make my first choice more expensive and lead me to select my second.

Not only does this have public policy implications, it should also make us reflect on the self. Neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman writes:

the self exists primarily as a conduit to let the social groups we are immersed in (that is, our family, our school, our country) supplement our natural impulses with socially derived impulses. The social world imparts a collection of beliefs about ourselves, about morality , and about what constitutes a worthwhile life. Because of how the self functions, we often cling to these beliefs as though they are unique ideas we came up with for ourselves— the products of our private inner voice. It is not enough for us to recognize what the group believes and values. We have to adopt the beliefs and values as our own if they are to guide our behavior. In other words, just like the Trojan horse, much of what makes up our sense of self was snuck in from the outside, under the cover of darkness. We might believe the self exists to help strengthen our resolve in the face of outside forces, but this theory of “who we are” overlooks the ways our brain uses those outside forces to construct and update the self. (1)

This understanding of the self makes sense of how advertising, as part of our social environment can change our own self-image. The problem is, unlike deriving a sense of self from family, friends, and society, advertisers have specific goals in mind and engage in what can only be called manipulation in order to part you from your money. In a study convincing UCLA undergraduates to use sunscreen, activity in the MPFC was monitored and  Lieberman found that:

The activity in this brain region did a much better job predicting their behavior over the next week than anything the participants consciously told us. Relating this back to the idea of a Trojan horse self, this study shows people changing their mental representations of the value of using sunscreen in a way that drives behavior but, at the same time, in a way that they are unaware of. People didn’t realize the actual change that was taking place within them. And the site of this change in the brain is the MPFC. Once again this suggests that this thing we call our “self” is far less private and hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world than we believe. As it turns out, the way our MPFC responds to an advertisement not only predicts how we will change but also how entire populations will change. (2)

Returning to public policy impacts, this is yet another reason to ban or limit advertising.

(1) Lieberman, Matthew D. (2013-10-08). Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect (p. 192). Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

(2) Lieberman, Matthew D. (2013-10-08). Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect (p. 198). Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


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