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Exclusive: Your brain is lying to you about Super Bowl ads. This neuroscientist can prove it

Immersion Neuroscience CEO Paul Zak on what measuring unconscious emotional response tells us about your brain that you can’t.

Exclusive: Your brain is lying to you about Super Bowl ads. This neuroscientist can prove it

The best commercial of the 2018 Super Bowl according to the almighty USA Today Ad Meter was Amazon’s “Alexa Loses Her Voice,” a hilarious look at what might happen if certain celebrities were given free reign to voice the digital assistant. The Ad Meter, which for many CMOs is the only measurement that counts, is based on public votes. You liked it. I liked it. We all liked it.

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Or did we?

Paul Zak, PhD, cofounder and CEO of Immersion Neuroscience, says there’s a big difference between the Super Bowl commercials we say we love, and the ones our brains actually love, that we’ll remember, and will most likely lead us to actually buying the product.

Which is, uh, kind of the whole point.

According to Zak, the best performing ad of the 2018 Super Bowl was Diet Coke’s “Groove,” featuring a woman dancing after being happily possessed by the soda’s new mango flavor.

Guess where “Groove” landed on USA Today Ad Meter. Take a look. Scroll down. Keep scrolling. Yep, past Sprint’s “Evelyn.” Past Tiffany Haddish in Groupon’s “Who Wouldn’t.” No, keep scrolling. You haven’t gone too far, I promise. Scrolling, scrolling . . . ah, there it is . . . Diet Coke . . . dead last.

“Generally the ads that win have an emotional component, have a good story structure, but they don’t have to be likeable,” says Zak. “The Diet Coke ad isn’t really likeable, but it’s so weird you just want to know what this woman’s doing, you just can’t forget it. It’s bizarrely compelling.”

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Despite tepid reviews at the time, the Diet Coke ad actually helped contribute to the brand’s first quarterly sales gain in North America in nearly eight years.

Zak thinks there’s a better approach to assessing how we process Super Bowl ads than just telling a pollster or Twitter how we feel. Immersion Neuroscience’s work is based on the idea that the neural signature of emotional resonance is the brain’s production of oxytocin. Using complex signal processing techniques, it can measure the oxytocin effect through changes in nerve activity that control an individual’s heartbeat. The company takes measurements via a wrist-based neurosensor about the size of an Apple Watch. The data it gathers is then fed through Immersion’s algorithm developed based on more than 15 years of Zak’s research. The result, the company claims, is the first scalable, real-time way to measure people’s response to stimuli, such as TV commercials.

The difference between what people say and what they actually do has long been taken into consideration when it comes to surveys, focus groups, polling, and other opinion gathering. But what Zak is saying is that by finding out what kind of ads trigger the brain’s positive emotional response, marketers can better embed their message into our memory and more effectively influence our actions. (Yes, it sounds a bit creepy, but I’ll take good, old-fashioned emotional manipulation over wide-scale personal data extraction and exploitation. Immersion Neuroscience has not worked with any of this year’s Super Bowl advertisers.)

After working with brands and measuring results for the last five years, Zak says two components have emerged as the strongest indicators that a commercial will elicit a positive emotional response in the brain. First is whether it gains your attention, and the second is whether or not you care about the characters in the story. The attention part is perhaps the easiest–cute animals, wacky characters, loud music–but it’s that second part that presents the bigger challenge.

“A lot of the ads assume that people have very short attention spans, so they don’t build a narrative arc. The takeaway is: You need a story. It can’t just be quick cuts and random thoughts,” says Zak. “The other thing we found was that within that story arc, perhaps less obvious, is you don’t want to resolve the tension fully. We find ads are more likely to motivate action when you hold that tension. You don’t resolve the story.”

We’ve already seen a number of the ads that’ll air during the Super Bowl and will be watching for more with Zak’s criteria in mind.

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Check back with Fast Company after the Super Bowl for the exclusive reveal of Immersion’s results for the 2019 commercials.

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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