How The Brain Responds to Deceptive Advertising

According to new study by a North Carolina State University researchers and published in the Journal of Marketing Research, several specific regions of our brains are activated in a two-part process when we are exposed to deceptive advertising.

The study utilized functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to capture images of the brain while study participants were shown a series of print advertisements. The fMRI images allowed researchers to determine how consumers’ brains respond to potentially deceptive advertising.

Subjects were not asked to evaluate the advertisements, but to passively review them as we all would experience every day. Participants were exposed to three pre-tested advertisements that were deemed “highly believable,” “moderately deceptive” or “highly deceptive.” The ads were also pre-tested to ensure that they were for products that consumers found equally interesting and desirable – leaving the degree of deception as the only significant variable.

In the first stage, there was increased activity in the precuneus – a part of the brain associated with focusing conscious attention. According to the authors,”the more deceptive an advertisement is, the more you are drawn to it, much as our attention is drawn to potential threats in our environment.” Specifically, in this study, the more deceptive an ad was, the more precuneus activity was observed.

In second stage, researchers saw more activity in the superior temporal sulcus (STS) and temporoparietal junction (TPJ) regions of the brain. This suggests increased “theory-of-mind” (ToM) reasoning. ToM is a type of processing that allows us to distinguish our wants and needs from those of others, particularly as this applies to intuiting the intentions of other people. In this case, it appears to indicate that participants were trying to determine the truth behind the claims in the potentially deceptive advertisements.

The researchers saw that moderately deceptive ads cause more activity during this second stage which may be because highly deceptive ads are screened out more quickly and discarded as not meriting further attention.

If the study found that there was greater brain activation when participants were exposed to moderately deceptive ads, does that increase our susceptiblity to the sales pitch in ads that trigger just a pinch of skepticism? Apparently not. In a follow-up, behavioral component of the study, researchers interfered with the ToM stage, making it more difficult for participants to determine the intention behind the ads. As a result, participants more frequently believed moderately deceptive advertising. This suggests that the second stage is an important step that helps protect consumers by allowing them to better discriminate and screen out deceptive ads.

The researchers hope that by identifying these stages of brain response, it may help future researchers identify underlying neural reasons why some populations are more prone to fall prey to deceptive ads and if these regions of the brain are likely to be affected by aging. For example, it may explain why older adults are more vulnerable to fraud or deceptive advertising. Or how concussive brain injuries, such as those seen in some sports, may affect our long-term discrimination in making good consumer choices?

Journal of Marketing Research