More Proof That Focus Groups Are Bunk

Evan Tishuk of Orange Coat pointed us to this Seed Magazine article which looks at the Super Bowl spots consumers truly liked, not the one they said they liked.

UCLA neuropsychiatry researcher, Marco Iacoboni, scanned the brains of people while they watched commercials from Super Bowl XL and observed their neural activity. Iacoboni and his team focused on activity in mirror neurons, which are associated with social behaviors such as imitation and empathy.
“Mirror neurons, we believe, are a key neural system for social behavior.” Iacoboni said.
Iacoboni said one subject exemplified the discontinuity between the commercials people said they liked and those they neurally responded to. The women in question was unable to mask her innate inclination toward enjoying ads whose message went against her conscious and vocal political correctness.
“She came out of the scanner and she said all the right things, the things that you expected to hear from her,” he said. “For instance, she didn’t like any of those commercials in which females are treated mostly as objects of sexual desire.
“But guess what? Her mirror neural regions were firing out like crazy when she saw those.”
Inversely, the same subject didn’t get a rise out of Dove’s campaign for self-esteem.
“That ad is really nice because it had a very important social message: You don’t have to be beautiful to be successful, and you don’t have to be insecure if you’re not beautiful,” Iacoboni said. “And she loved that one, and everybody loved it. We loved it, too. But guess what? Her brain didn’t react too much to that ad. All the regions that we think are important for social behavior, the reward system, mirror neuron system, they really didn’t show a strong response to that ad.”

About David Burn

Co-founder and editor of AdPulp. I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. I worked for seven agencies in five states before launching my own practice in 2009. Today, I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.


  1. There is also a disconnect between the product and the message.
    In a dove style ad, what if there were boys in there? It would be somewhat strange for a dove product, but consider…
    A little boy with the tag line:
    knows he doesn’t have a chance making the football team,
    (in my version I would ad the negating conjunctive phrase) but doesn’t mind being on the academic team anyway. Now flash a boy product logo and a “positive” psychological message.
    It doesn’t make sense.
    To me for boys and girls. As much as I don’t like (feel repugnance for) this MRI stuff, it does make sense to me that nothing would be firing off unless there was a conjunct.

  2. So this begs a bit more research. Does this rise or fall in neural activity mean anything when it comes to making brand choices? Or does societal teachings play a trump card? If neural activity does reign supreme, I’m sure the research companies will soon persuade people to sit around conference room tables with wires stuck to their scalps.
    Ethical question for the day: How far do we go in search of a sale?

  3. Indiana Gividen says:

    I think the study is irrelevant. Peer pressure has an incredible amount of power over or purchasing behavior.
    How many people purchase a diet soda when they would enjoy the flavor of a regular one much more?

  4. The ethics here are indeed the question. And sometimes commercial testing lends to medical breakthroughs. Other times it’s just a way to get more rats in the cage.
    It makes me wonder about social behaviour, alright. Not necessarily of the consumers who aren’t buying this stuff.

  5. Yes, I think this does support the case against focus groups. But I think we shouldn’t get too carried away by this kind of research as I suspect it sets us up for another questionable way of understanding consumers.. with its own set of questions about interpretation.

  6. I don’t think the so-called brain surgeons actually know what part of the brain is actually doing what.
    Anyone with even a moderately shallow background in neuroscience will tell you – We don’t really know how the brain really works.
    So, attach all the electrodes you want. And draw any conclusion you’d like.
    It all means nothing.

  7. it means something. It means I used to sound intelligent. now someone says mirror neuron…you know what I think?
    I look at 8GB and read: bgate.
    But that’s because now some of this stuff means nothing at all to me. I walk in front of that brain science building too many times at the university here. I know the kids in that building are doing their best, and I want them to succeed but at what ethical cost.