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Do Anti-Tobacco Ads Work? Ask a ‘Neural Focus Group’

April 24, 2012   Psychological scientists studied the brain activity of smokers as they watched anti-tobacco advertisements to determine which ads would lead to mass behavior change. Since focus groups and other strategies can be unreliable predictors of what works in the real world, researchers took a more objective approach—conducting fMRI scans of smokers’ brains as they watched the ads. They recruited men and women who were heavy smokers with a strong intention to quit, and participants watched 10 professionally made TV ads representing three different ad campaigns while their brains were scanned. Afterwards, they were asked to describe their reaction to the ads and rank them in order of effectiveness. The idea was to see if volunteers’ opinion of the ads or their brain activity was a better predictor of population-wide change, as measured by the number of calls to the quitline after the ads aired. The results showed that neuronal activity in the targeted brain region did indeed predict the real-world success of the ad campaigns, but the volunteers’ own opinions of the ads did not.

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