In one of the odder but potentially most revealing looks at Super Bowl ads to date, start-up "neuromedia" research firm Sands Research last week strapped caps with electrodes linked to electroencephalography machines on the noggins of about 20 test subjects in El Paso, Texas. While the research by no means can gauge purchase intent, it's at least a measure of engagement with a commercial that closely ties it to recall.
Sands found that subjects' brain activity soared for Coke's "It's Mine" ad featuring Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons from Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., and Bud Light's "Ability to Fly" ad from DDB Worldwide, Chicago.
But the fewest synapses fired for the Office of National Drug Control Policy's ad from DraftFCB, New York, that showed a pusher's lecture outside a pharmacy on the dangers of mom and dad's prescription drugs.
Against conventional wisdom
While those three ads scored similarly well or poorly in other surveys, such as USA Today's Ad Meter, the brainwave results flew in the face of popularity contests or conventional wisdom in other cases.
Ads for Under Armour and Doritos, which scored in the bottom three in the USA Today polling, finished in the top 10 in brain activity among Sands Research's test subjects last week. Three others that scored relatively well with consumers and critics -- Tide to Go's "Interview" and E-Trade's talking-baby ads -- registered relatively low brain activity.
The Tide ad, coincidentally, didn't register well for the very reason the interviewee in the ad had trouble getting his point across, said Stephen Sands, the biomedical researcher who founded the eponymous firm: People's brains block out all messages when confronted with competing signals.
Also surprisingly, the sexier spots fared pretty poorly. Ads for Victoria's Secret (featuring lingerie-clad model Adriana Lima), GoDaddy (featuring Danica Patrick enticing people to a racier ad online) and Ice Breakers (featuring Carmen Electra) were among the bottom third in brain-signal strength.
But Mr. Sands wasn't willing to conclude sex doesn't sell. He noted that the Super Bowl ads in general produce far more brain activity than ads not in the game, and that the Victoria's Secret ad was well-recalled in follow-up surveys.
He also said 60-second ads tended to produce more brain activity than 30-second ones, which in turn do better than 15. Ads with the element of surprise, he noted, almost always do well.
Sands' best-testing ad last week actually ran before the game. It was Pepsi's "Bob's House" ad from BBDO, New York, a mostly silent ad featuring two men in a car searching for a deaf friend's house at night by honking the horn and seeing who didn't turn on their lights. "That really lit up people's left hemispheres in the language areas," Mr. Sands said, as people read subtitles translating the men's sign language.
Why all the equipment?
But since it's easier to just ask people if they recall or like an ad than to hook them up to EEG machines, why bother with the headgear? Mr. Sands said the real value often lies in second-by-second analysis of brain activity to see which parts of a commercial work -- or don't.
Researchers have been using functional MRI to similarly track brain activity during ads for years. But the costs, discomfort for test subjects and subsequently small sample sizes have severely limited the usefulness of FMRI, said William Cook, senior VP-research and standards at the Advertising Research Federation. Wearing Sands' EEG headgear may not be the most natural way to watch ads, Mr. Cook said, but it's easier than sitting perfectly still for extended periods watching a tiny screen inside an MRI tube.
Sands Research "is still in the early stages of relating their measures to advertising effectiveness, but it's intriguing," Mr. Cook said. "One thing they're going to be able to do soon I think is to relate how the sequencing of elements in an ad leads to effectiveness. It's pretty exciting."