Fox professors link brain activity to ad success

Fox professors found which part of the brain responds to advertisements.

The co-authors of the study sit in Paul Pavlou’s office on Jan. 30 to discuss the study. | Kara Milstein TTN
The co-authors of the study sit in Paul Pavlou’s office on Jan. 30 to discuss the study. | Kara Milstein TTN

The key to any television advertisement’s success partially lies in the “reward center” area of the viewer’s brain.

This discovery was one of the main findings of a six-month study conducted from December 2012 through May 2013 by Fox School of Business professors Angelika Dimoka, Paul Pavlou and Vinod Venkatraman. The study consisted of evaluating responses of more than 300 participants to 37 different advertisements through eight different methods.

The different methods differed from paper surveys to physical changes in behavior – like changes in breathing, heart rate and eye tracking – to neurological responses like functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging and electroencephalography.

Venkatraman, an assistant professor of marketing and lead author of the study, said the brain’s “reward center,” formally known as the ventral striatum, is a great predictor of the success of television advertisements because it indicates a more direct response from the viewer.

“When you’re watching an ad, it should increase your desirability for the product that is featured in the ad,” Venkatraman said. “We basically argued that’s a measurement that’s difficult to obtain with a simple question … after 30 seconds of watching the ad, [viewers] don’t know what to focus on … what we have here is a more automatic response. How does your brain respond in [the ventral striatum] when you are watching the ad?”

Venkatraman added that these neuroscience measurements are “live” measurements, meaning that they evaluate the viewer’s response during the entire span of an advertisement.

The research team’s paper was accepted for publication in the Journal of Marketing Research, a journal under the American Marketing Association, on December 12. The Association consists of more than 30,000 members who “work, teach, and study in the field of marketing across the globe,” according to its website.

Dimoka, director of the center for neural decision making, said collaborating with six other authors from Duke, NYU and UCLA was rewarding because each individual added valuable insight to the paper. She added that working together was easy at the time because the six authors were all at NYU during the time of the study.

“To be able to do a study of this scale, we needed to have multiple people with multiple [areas of] expertise,” Dimoka said. “It was a very rewarding collaboration and I think both sides benefited a lot.”

Venkatraman, Dimoka and Pavlou were able to conduct the study because of a $286,000 grant from the Advertising Research Foundation, which Dimoka said the group received because of its expertise in linking neuroscience to advertising studies.

“Our Center [for Neural Decision Making] is one of the very few centers in the world that do this type of research, especially being located in a Business School,” Dimoka said. “Not all centers have seven different neurophysiological measures. They might have one, two or three, but not all of them.”

Another reason the ARF awarded the grant was because it was impressed by an international conference in neuroscience held at Temple in 2011, Dimoka said.

Even with the paper’s success, Pavlou, Fox’s associate dean of research and chief research officer, said there is still more to learn when it comes to determining what contributes to the success of television advertisements.

“From a practical perspective, we can predict quite well,” Pavlou said. “The next question people ask is, ‘How do you activate the ventral striatum?’ … I guess to be facetious, we need another $300,000 to do another study, and it’s probably more difficult than the current one … that’s what we’d probably call ‘Neuro 3.0.’”

After this past Sunday’s Super Bowl, the study’s importance not only is relevant because of how important advertisements are on that day in general, but also because Temple showed a “Take Charge” commercial during the third quarter of the game.

While Dimoka said she wished Temple reached out to Venkatraman, Pavlou and her about seeing how their research correlates to the university’s advertisements, she said Super Bowl commercials are different than those that air on a typical day.

“We do know that Super Bowl commercials are a species of their own,” Dimoka said. “…But we have a good [idea] of understanding what will make a more successful ad, and how we can take even those quite expensive ads and see characteristics from them that help us [determine] a better ad and its success.”

Steve Bohnel can be reached at or on Twitter @Steve_Bohnel

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