Advertisers are professional brain teasers.
One researcher has proven it. But exactly what does your brain on advertising look like? Just about how you would expect: All that furrowed grey matter, huddling for cover inside the skull. But confronted with the coaxing images of advertising, it begins firing, certain areas lighting up like solar flares on its surface.
This is the image mapped by Dante Pirouz, a professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario. She has j ust released the results of a study that allowed her to track the responses within participants' brains when they were confronted with advertising that tempts them to engage in risky behaviour. And she has found something surprising.
Prof. Pirouz showed her subjects print ads for cigarettes - that classic Marlboro man in rugged repose, a woman lighting up a Camel held between her painted lips - and then used functional magnetic resonance imaging to gather data about how those images affected blood flow to the brain.
It's perhaps no surprise that the regions of the brain associated with craving were highly active among the smokers of the group. But Prof. Pirouz also found that non-smokers' brains responded to the ads. Craving centres (such as the thalamus and the orbitofrontal cortex) showed increased blood flow even in people who might not be inclined to smoke otherwise. And it wasn't just the data that showed this; the subjects reported the same feelings.
"When the non-smokers are exposed to these cigarette ads, they reported an increased urged to smoke," Prof. Pirouz said in an interview.
Tobacco advertising has been heavily restricted in Canada. But not so for the marketing of other risky behaviour. Most past research has focused on the effect of advertising to children and youth, aiding in the push to prevent marketing addictive products to kids who may not be able to process the images critically. But Prof. Pirouz's research shows that adults are susceptible as well.
"We as consumers are constantly exposed to advertising of all sorts, including these legal addictive products," she said. "There might be some effects going on there."
Prof. Pirouz believes the research applies to the marketing of other kinds of risky behaviour as well. She is planning to do similar experiments on gambling ads.
Over the past decade or so, the relationship between cues in advertising and the psychological craving response has become increasingly clear, said Robert Mann, senior scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. He has studied the link between advertising and alcohol consumption in young people, and has also found a link.
"This study, it's very important, if it's pointing to the neurobiological basis for these relationships," Dr. Mann said.
But what are policy makers to make of this? Prof. Pirouz believes her research could contribute to a continuing debate in the United States and elsewhere, about how much tighter restrictions should get for ads that are already regulated.
Last month, the British government announced a move to ban the display of cigarettes in shops and forcing them to be sold in plain packages. In 2009, a new law gave the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the right to regulate tobacco. Since then, the FDA has followed Canada's lead in restricting cigarette companies from sponsoring sports, musical and other events - a law that U.S. tobacco advertisers have argued threatens their free speech.
In Canada, tobacco ads may be scarce, but marketing for other "risky" behaviour is still visible. Limits on gambling ads differ from province to province, typically prohibit encouraging people to gamble excessively, or showing any certainty of financial reward. Both Ontario and British Columbia impose such restrictions.
"It is an important topic to us. OLG is committed to responsible advertising principles and guidelines," said Don Pister, a spokesperson for the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp.
But according to Prof. Pirouz, while advertisers may not intend to encourage people to gamble excessively, it's not always easy to exercise that kind of pinpoint control on people's cravings. Especially given that her study found that smoking advertisements can wear down people's ability to resist such temptation.
The research also looked at the parts of the brain that help to control the craving response. Prof. Pirouz found opposite reactions in those areas when it came to the brains of smokers compared with non-smokers. She connects this with already published literature that shows people's resistance to risky behaviour may have a limit: If you are a dieter and you say no to that bag of candy now, you may have drawn from your psychological bank account of resistance, leaving a smaller balance for later - when you need to resist the urge to eat junk food, drive faster, take a drink, or play the slots.
Her next area of research will be gambling. While regulations do exist in that sector, there is likely little political appetite to further restrict advertising in the sector. Lotteries, video lottery terminals, casinos and slot machines brought in net revenue of $13.75-billion for Canadian governments in 2010. Prof. Pirouz argues that perhaps because of that, they may not want to tighten current regulations.
"On one side, adults should have choices about the behaviour they engage in," she said. "But there is a debate. … Is the government complicit in helping us into these addictive behaviours, which ultimately can be dangerous for people?"
A similar problem exists for alcohol ads, which are regulated federally. For television commercials, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has a code of standards for alcohol ads. Chief among them is a prohibition against any "attempt to influence non-drinkers of any age to drink or to purchase alcoholic beverages."
"What you're doing with advertising is swaying people's brand preference; you're not swaying people's desire to drink," said Nicole Bellam, vice-president of clearance services at Advertising Standards Canada (ASC), a self-regulatory body which helps the industry follow such rules. "Everything has to be talking to people who already drink."
That is why, for example, you'll never see in a Canadian ad the classic scenario where boy meets girl and asks if he can buy her a drink. One of the ways ASC ensures that alcohol is marketed only to existing drinkers is to require that if people offer each other drinks in an ad, they must already know each other (and by implication, know that the person does indeed drink).
ASC accepts complaints from consumers who feel alcohol is being marketed irresponsibly. The organization released its annual ad complaints report this week - not a single complaint that was upheld related to alcohol in ads, and it has not received such a complaint in the past six years either. Under the section that deals with complaints about ads portraying dangerous behaviour, most consumers were more upset about depictions of dangerous driving than of alcohol.
"It's a bit ironic that at a time when there is evidence linking advertising to increased consumption, the government essentially deregulated advertising and passed it on to the industry to self-regulate," said Dr. Mann of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. "There have been studies on what happens when advertising is banned, and it turns out that consumption will decrease … In that kind of context, you have to say, what's the appropriate way to do this? Is there something we should do to limit the damage that might occur through encouraging consumption?"