Thursday, April 26, 2012

Expert Celebrities Lull Our Brains into Buying the Goods They Peddle

You switched on the TV and a commercial is playing. Maria Sharapova is in the midst of delivering a top spin to the corner of the opposite court. Clad in clothing with the distinctive swoosh logo as part of her multi-million dollar endorsement deal with sports giant NIKE, she smiles as the commercial ends with the wording - Just do it. 

The company is hoping that the next time you go shopping for tennis clothes; NIKE is where you go. 

Why do companies rush to sign endorsement contracts with the next big thing in sports and entertainment? What is it about celebrity endorsement that persuades us to buy a product? 

While researchers have long known that we are more likely to be persuaded by information coming from highly credible sources than low credibility sources, the underlying brain mechanisms remains unclear.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which allows researchers to derive a measurement of neural activity from blood flow in the brain, new research by Dutch scientists suggest that what makes these advertisements so compelling and successful is that merely seeing a celebrity expert paired with a product is sufficient to induce a stronger memory and positive attitude towards the product.

In the study, 24 female students (mean age 21.8 years) had their brains scanned while being shown pictures of celebrities and objects in a sequential manner. They were asked to indicate whether a given celebrity was linked with the subsequent object. For example, participants were shown a picture of former world number 1 tennis player Andre Agassi followed by a picture of a sports shoe and asked if there was a relationship between the two.

The next day after the brain scan, the participants were asked to rate the celebrities’ expertise with the object. Their attitudes and memory of the objects were also assessed and the researchers found that objects that were perceived to be presented by an expert celebrity were more memorable and also elicited a more favorable attitude.

Brain imaging data revealed that participants showed greater left-sided brain activity in areas associated with semantic processing when the celebrities were paired with objects that they were perceived to have expertise in than when they were paired with non-expertise objects.

The researchers argue that the greater left-sided brain activity meant that participants were engaging in deeper processing of the appropriately paired celebrities and objects which resulted in better subsequent memory for the objects.

Greater relative activity in the hippocampus and parahippocampal gyrus – brain areas that are known to be involved in memory also supported their claim that appropriate celebrity expertise – object pairs were driving the memory effects of these objects.

This finding thus suggests that we would remember a golf club better if Tiger Woods was swinging it in a commercial compared to seeing UK celebrity chef Jamie Oliver putting on the green.

But does remembering the objects better translate into actual dollars or are companies just wasting their money engaging celebrities to market their products? The study suggests that spending millions on celebrity endorsement is a sound investment.

Participants indicated that they were more likely to purchase the product when it had been paired with an appropriate celebrity expert. Greater celebrity expertise with the product also increased activity in the caudate nucleus – the brain area involved in trust and reward processing. 

Even though it is unclear whether male brains would show similar patterns at this juncture, the researchers touted the study as “the first steps towards a neuroscientific model of persuasion” and more research is expected to be on the way to improve our understanding of what makes us buy the things we buy.
So just remember, the next time you step into a NIKE store looking for that hot tennis skirt, it is unlikely to be just a happy accident.

Klucharev, V., Smidts, A., & Fernandez, G. (2008). Brain mechanisms of persuasion: how 'expert power' modulates memory and attitudes Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 3 (4), 353-366 DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsn022