This Is Your Brain On Ads: An Internal 'Battle' Youth Radio's Maya Cueva says her mother always taught her to never surrender to the manipulative ways of advertising. But recently, she had been wondering how much control she has over her thoughts. So she went to the corporate headquarters of NeuroFocus, a pioneer in the business of neuromarketing, to find out.
NPR logo

This Is Your Brain On Ads: An Internal 'Battle'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
This Is Your Brain On Ads: An Internal 'Battle'

This Is Your Brain On Ads: An Internal 'Battle'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

For decades, social scientists have tried to determine how TV ads affect the children and teenagers who watch them. Do commercials make kids more materialistic? Are fast food ads responsible for rising childhood obesity rates?

Well, Youth Radio reporter Maya Cueva looked for answers inside her own brain.

MAYA CUEVA: Here I am at Walgreens, in the hair product aisle. There are a lot of brand-name shampoos on the shelf, but there's one that always catches my eye.

(Soundbite of TV commercial)

Unidentified Man: For stylized curls that look like a splurge, at a price that feels like a steal, Tresemme Flawless Curls.

CUEVA: I've probably seen this ad a hundred times and didn't think it could affect me, not after all my mom has taught me about never surrendering to the manipulative ways of advertising.

Unidentified Woman #1: I realized that kids were living in a whole 'nother world that was influencing them more than I was.

CUEVA: My mom's a therapist. When I was in second grade, she started an after-school class where she had kids analyze TV shows and commercials.

Unidentified Woman #1: And the kids were used to going into that zone where you just kind of stop thinking and you just watch. And so, this interrupted that and made people stop watching and start thinking.

CUEVA: But recently, I've been wondering just how much control I have over my own thoughts when it comes to ads, which is how I found myself in a Berkeley lab with a hat of electrodes on my head.

Unidentified Woman #2: So this is called an EEG cap. I'm going to place one of these caps on your head. OK?


So, it looks like a swim cap. Then there's like a wire attached to my nose. I'm in the corporate headquarters of NeuroFocus, a pioneer in the business of neuromarketing. It makes some scientists antsy, but the company claims to tell advertisers how to make better commercials by replacing focus groups with an electroencephalogram.

Kind of like how a microphone is picking up the sound waves of my voice, the EEG strapped to my head is picking up brainwaves created by the electrical activity that passes between neurons when my brain processes something anything, even commercials. Like this one NeuroFocus uses to demo their technology.

(Soundbite of TV commercial)

Mr. MORGAN FREEMAN (Actor): The Olympic Winter Games will always be where history happens.

CUEVA: As Morgan Freeman's God-like voice narrates, I watch images of a torch lighting ceremony, a figure skater, hockey player. Meanwhile, in a neighboring control room, lab director Mark Kishiyama shows my producer a series of squiggly waves that appear on the screen.

Mr. MARK KISHIYAMA (Laboratory Director, NeuroFocus): This is her brain activity right now, real time.

(Soundbite of TV commercial)

Mr. FREEMAN: Visa, the only card excepted at the Olympic Games.

Mr. KISHIYAMA: When you're watching ads and so forth, you know, you're just kind of sitting there and you're kind of passively watching it. But your brain is responding to it. So it's not always conscious. It's not conscious.

CUEVA: Subconscious.

Mr. KISHIYAMA: It is. Or as we say, we say non-conscious, but the awareness is still there.

CUEVA: That awareness shows up on the EEG as tall peaks in the parts of my brain Kishiyama says are associated with emotion, attention and memory. Those parts get busy at certain moments in the ad - at the beginning with the torch and figure skater and then later when a Visa card appears on screen.

He says it's evidence that my brain is making a non-conscious link between the credit card and the Olympics.

Mr. KISHIYAMA: You think that a 30-sec ad is so fast none of it's going to get in. But it does, you know, as you can see.

CUEVA: That's so scary.

Mr. KISHIYAMA: Yeah. But it does show how effective it is.

CUEVA: Advertisers will use Kishiyama's data on the most effective moments in an ad to compress it down to a 10-second Web video for sites like YouTube. In theory, you'd see a lot more brainwave peaks per second as they pack this message into your head.

But what happens once it's in there? Ben Hayden is a neuroscientist who studies decision-making. He told me about researchers at Caltech who scan the brains of people on diets while offering them junk food.

Dr. BEN HAYDEN (Neuroscientist, Duke University): I mean, you can literally witness this battle going on.

CUEVA: A certain region of the brain lit up when the dieters resisted the junk food. Hayden says that self-control region is in a tug-of-war with the parts of the brain affected by ads.

Dr. HAYDEN: When advertising comes into the picture, it kind of is the opposite of self-control. It encourages you to just go out and buy it, just do it.

CUEVA: If he scanned my brain while I was in that shampoo aisle, Hayden says he would see lots of activity in the just do it region as I grab the Tresemme. But just as TV ads prime that part of the brain, it turns out the kind of training my mom gave me could boost the signal in the just say no region. It's what mom was telling me all along.

Unidentified Woman #1: So I wouldn't worry so much about how whether your brain will react. It's more what decisions you make after your brain reacts.

CUEVA: So you think that I still could consciously not buy the product? Is that what you're saying?

Unidentified Woman #1: Yes, I think so, because I know how thoughtful you are and how well-educated you are about this.

CUEVA: OK, so maybe my mom's biased. But there's some neuroscience to back her up. Hayden says I could be better off than most teens, because every time I think critically about how ads work, I create new patterns in my brain that strengthen the self-control regions. The ads might get inside my brain, but they don't have to decide what I do.

For NPR News, I'm Maya Cueva.

BLOCK: Our story was produced by Youth Radio.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.