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Celebrity Product Endorsements on the Brain

• May 27, 2010 • 5:00 AM

Brain-scan research suggests celebrity faces evoke specific happy memories, and those positive feelings rub off on the products they endorse.

For some of us, the increasingly popular practice of celebrity product endorsements is puzzling. What difference does it make if Brad Pitt recommends a particular pen, or Sally Field a certain cereal? Unless the famous spokesperson has a specific area of expertise — say, Tiger Woods endorsing a set of golf clubs — why would anyone care?

A new study suggests the answer involves superstar-specific happy memories stored in our cerebral cortex. Using brain-scan technology, researchers found those positive emotions get transferred from the personality to the product, producing a more positive impression of the item in question and, presumably, a greater probability of purchasing it.

Writing in the Journal of Economic Psychology, a research team led by Mirre Stallen of Erasmus University, the Netherlands, describe an experiment featuring 23 Dutch women. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging technology, the researchers observed which areas of their brains were stimulated as the participants looked at a series of slides.

The images were of either a female celebrity or a non-famous female face. (The stars and unknowns were matched for attractiveness, to guard against any bias for the better-looking person.) In some of the slides, the faces appeared alongside a photograph of a specific brand of shoe.

As the women watched the image of the celebrity alongside the footwear, “we observed specific activity in the orbitofrontal cortex,” the researchers report. “In particular, we found enhanced activity in the medial part of the orbitofrontal cortex, which supports the hypothesis that celebrities give rise to positive emotions, as the medial orbitofrontal cortex has consistently been associated with the encoding of subjective liking of stimuli.”

This pattern of brain activity was not activated when the subjects viewed the famous faces alone. This suggest the brain “did not simply process the presence of a famous face during the presentation of the celebrity-object pairings, but instead encoded the presentation of an object in the context of fame.”

According to Stallen and her colleagues, these results suggest “the perception of a celebrity face results in the retrieval of explicit memories” — say, of a fun night out with friends, during which you enjoyed the actor’s latest movie. “The positive affect that is experienced during the retrieval of these memories may subsequently be transferred to the product associated with the celebrity,” they write.

This helps explain why Woods lost almost all of his endorsement contracts in the wake of last year’s sex scandal. The great golfer no doubt still evokes positive memories of exciting tournaments, but to many, his image also arouses less-pleasant recollections. Presumably those negative emotions would also be transferred to the product in question.

So the next time you’re tempted to buy a weed whacker endorsed by Wayne Newton, ponder whether you’re really being driven by vague but happy memories of your last visit to Vegas. Chances are those feelings will be replaced by less-agreeable emotions as you attempt to decapitate the dandelions.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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