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Florida university studies brain responses to deceptive advertising

MANATEE -- Ever wonder why you fell for that late-night infomercial selling the magical powers of a $150 fruit juicer that's never been removed from the box? Researchers at the University of South Florida have asked themselves that very question.

USF Assistant Marketing Professor Adam Craig is working with neuroscience researchers to test exactly how advertising can alter a person's brain by manipulating what brands shoppers choose to buy and how much they're willing to spend.The studies use brain scanners to measure consumption behavior through a number of factors including deceptive ads and the mere presence of other shoppers, which can actually influence the way the brain works.

"The whole idea is to use physiology, sociology and different tests and methods in order to try to understand why people make the decisions they do," Craig said. "People generally don't do what economists tell us we should be doing, and that can have significant financial ramifications."

Craig began the series in 2007 while he was still a graduate student at the University of South Carolina. The first study, now published in the Journal of Marketing Research, analyzed how deceptive advertisements can alter a buyer's behavior.The study tracked the different stages a person's brain enters when processing information that's ultimately used to vet a claim made by advertisers.

Study volunteers were asked to lie face up in giant MRIs that almost resemble a full body tanning bed. As the participants were shown a series of deceptive ads, researchers used the images to study blood flow to the brain. The images showed the areas that were most active, actually tracking how the brain changed while the ads were being viewed.

Craig said the study was unique because it was the first to look at how deceptive ads are processed without ever talking to the consumer.

"People aren't really good about telling you what they're thinking about when making a decision," he said. "They're good at rationalizing the decision or justifying it afterwards, but in the moment, they're not good at communicating.

"Years of analyzing the MRI images along with a follow-up behavioral study enabled researchers to capture essentially what was happening in the person's brain as deceptive ads were shown. It also found when they were most successful.

The verdict: deceptive ads tend to become most influential when the consumer's brain is clouded from variables like stress, lack of sleep or low awareness.That might explain why informercials are always running late at night.

The deceptive ad study was the first in a series of research projects led by Craig that use brain scanners to monitor consumer behavior.

Another study looks how the presence of other shoppers can alter a consumer's buying decision.

For example, a male shopper going to a store to purchase batteries may subconsciously reach for the more expensive product if he passes a few attractive females in the store due to a small desire to impress them on some level, Craig said.

"The characteristics of the other people in the store can have a huge influence on the decisions we make," he said. "And it's not something we're aware of at all."Craig teaches undergraduate-level courses in Buyer Behavior and Marketing Research at USF's College of Business.