Measuring the Brain's Reactions to Misleading Advertising

Jul 10, 2012

Have you ever seen an advertisement that you just know is wrong, you realize the moment you’re watching it, you’re being lied to?  You know, like the bracelet that promises to make you smarter, more attractive, and lower your cholesterol?

But no matter how outrageous those claims, some people still fall for them. USF Assistant Professor of Marketing Adam Craig is studying how our brains react to advertising—particularly deceptive ads—and he’s using neuroscience techniques to do so.

“People generally aren’t very good at describing what’s going on in their heads psychologically or from a neurological perspective," said Craig. "So having measures that get around peoples’ inability to articulate what it is they’re thinking, what it is they’re feeling, was really important and really critical here.”

Craig and researchers at the University of South Carolina found those measures by using a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging scanner, or fMRI.  College students were put into the scanner and shown three sets of ads. One set was believable, the next moderately deceptive, the last, outright misleading. The fMRI would then detect how blood flowed to specific areas of the brain as it processed the information.

“In the first stage, there’s activation in a region called the precuneus and this has to do with that filtering of the highly believable versus the very unbelievable advertisement claims," said Craig. 

Next, the brain goes to work on the moderately deceptive ads.

“Once the really extreme claims have essentially been filtered out, then the inferior parietal lobe essentially does this mental product testing, ‘can this possibly be true based on what I know?’”

Craig says this shows that our state of mind when we reach this second stage is important.

“That second stage is only really effective when we have the mental resources, essentially when we have the attention span, the mental energy in order to think about those claims," said Craig. “If we don’t have the mental resources, then we’re much more likely to believe those potentially misleading claims.”

The hope is to eventually pinpoint why—and when—consumers make these poor decisions.

“And once we understand where in the decision-making process there’s some kind of failure or some kind of shortcoming, then we can help people understand how to make just a small change to their decision-making process that will lead to much better decisions.”

The study was recently published in the Journal of Marketing Research.