The study measured which brain regions were affected most by which ads, and this year, anxiety reigned supreme. That's where the amygdala comes in. It's the brain's "threat detector," the region where post-traumatic stress disorder originates and negative associations occur.
Joshua Freedman, co-founder of FKF Research and professor at UCLA, said advertisers went "way overboard" this year trying to capture consumers' attention. "The main reaction they got was anxiety ... and if you just get anxiety, people aren't going to buy anything."
An ad is most effective when it registers in multiple regions of the brain, not just the amygdala, Mr. Freedman said. The most successful spots were those that engaged viewers throughout the entire ad, such as Coca-Cola's video-game-themed spot, Doritos' "Live the Flavor" and Bud Light's "Hitchhiker." On the other hand, Emerald Nuts' "Robert Goulet," Honda's "CR-V Crave" and Sprint's "Connectile Dysfunction" ranked lowest in ability to stimulate viewers' brains.
If viewers' brains are engaged for only a fraction of an ad, all bets are off when it comes to recall. "Normally, when you've got an ad that's working one-third to one-half of the way through, it's like they pull down the window shade and just shut their brain down," Mr. Freedman said. "It's like you're in a restaurant where everyone's talking really loudly, and if someone's speaking at a normal volume, it's hard to hear them."
Anxiety champ: Snickers
Mr. Freedman said this year's "anxiety champ" was Snickers' depiction of two men nearly kissing while eating opposite ends of a candy bar and subsequently ripping out their own chest hair to prove their manliness. The kiss caused slightly less amygdala activity than the chest-hair ripping, likely a sign that viewers were attempting to suppress their emotions during the lip lock, Mr. Freedman said.
"Getting a lot of anxiety is an excellent way to make a really indelible mark in the brain," he said. "The more you evoke, in general, the stronger the memories are going to be. But if it is one of discomfort, it's just going to leave consumers with an uneasy sense whenever they see a Snickers bar."
Ultimately, Mr. Freedman said, good storytelling yields the highest rate of consumer motivation. "It's nice to have a story where people get engaged and there's some anxiety and also rewards. What you really want is for the product to somehow end up evoking that reward. Otherwise, people feel good, but you really want them to go out and get your product."