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Impact | The dark side of advertising

Volume 17, Number 4
April 2011

Advertisers assume that smokers can't resist cigarette ads and non-smokers can. Dante Pirouz shows that the reality is much more complicated.

pirouz-impact-11.jpgIn the first episode of the TV hit Mad Men, advertising executive Don Draper looks for a bright idea to keep the firm's Lucky Strike account. Regulators, concerned about the health effects of tobacco, are cracking down on what cigarette ads can say. At the last moment Draper saves the account with a slogan for Lucky Strike tobacco - it's toasted.

Like Draper, Ivey Professor Dante Pirouz worked in marketing and advertising as an account executive for a major U.S. ad agency on a cigarette account.  Her brief was to advance the brand of the company, without targeting new smokers. Still, she often wondered how the ads were actually affecting people.

Since pursuing an academic career, this question has motivated her research. Pirouz uses the tools of cognitive science and neuroscience, including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), to understand how ads induce risky consumer behaviour. fMRI is an imaging technique that shows how the brain responds to various stimuli. Pirouz has worked extensively with specialists in the field of fMRI, and even completed a training fellowship at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, a joint program of Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital and MIT.

In a recent study, Pirouz used brain scans taken from fMRI and traditional lab tests to see how cigarette advertising affected both smokers and non-smokers. Her study involved some 800 U.S. subjects, mostly in their 20s, who were either regular smokers or firm non-smokers. The subjects were shown cigarette ads from the 1990s, typically ads they wouldn't have seen before. These ads were matched with ads for neutral items, such as clothes and cars. When the subjects were shown the ads, their brains were observed for activity in the area associated with craving.

Pirouz found that the cigarette ads activated a craving response in both the smokers and non-smokers. She found, however, that smokers had built up a resistance to these kinds of ads. This came as a surprise, because smokers are stereotyped as having difficulty controlling their urges. "We thought smokers would be very susceptible to reward stimuli, but they actually have mechanisms and skills that help them dampen or limit the craving effect," she says.

Non-smokers, on the other hand, were particularly susceptible to the ads. "We did not expect non-smokers to respond to these ads, because they weren't the target audience," she says. "We found that smokers were able to fight the urge, but non-smokers hadn't built up the same resistance."

Pirouz's study confirms existing research that people who are tempted by one thing are susceptible to being tempted by others. The brain processes stimuli in a way that makes it difficult to resist temptations after fighting off an initial urge or craving. For example, if someone is tempted by chocolate cake, the ability to resist that temptation eventually runs out. According to theory, when that happens, the person becomes tempted by other kinds of risky behaviour, such as driving faster, spending more money, or buying more speculative stocks. "We found that our non-users hadn't built up resistance to these kinds of ads, and as a result their craving for unhealthy snacks and drinking actually increased," she says.

Pirouz's research has a number of important implications. Marketers are correct to assume that advertising works, but their assumptions about how it works are often incorrect. "We're finding so much more complexity in the way the brain processes stimuli," says Pirouz. "Market research is important to understand any campaign you might be developing."

Although Pirouz looks at the "dark side" of risky consumer behaviour, there is a positive message to her research. "People who are addicted seem to be able to strengthen the ability to resist by practicing self-control and working on coping mechanisms," she says. "That's good news - and that's why some people can quit."

Her research has implications for public policy makers, who are grappling with how to protect consumers from addictive or unhealthy products. An important issue in addictive products advertising is what should be allowed to go in the ad. Some of the ads in Pirouz's study explicitly show people smoking, whereas others, like the Marlborough Man, merely depict a lifestyle. Pirouz is going back to her data set to see if there is a difference in craving when smoking is actually shown in the ad as compared to when it is not. She also hopes to extend her research to the area of gambling advertising, an area of concern for Canadian policy makers, and given the growing concern over obesity and eating habits, food advertising.

 "The goal is that we get more insight into how we respond to the kind of stimuli our companies create," she says. "That way we can think about how to do things better, both for the consumer and the company."

Professor Pirouz's Homepage


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