fMRI measures advertising effectiveness better than questionnaires

Smint's 'Small, handy & intensely fresh' ad was tested by Neurensics using fMRI. The same ad was tested with questionnaires by a well-known traditional qualitative research agency. Two different techniques, two different results and a difference in the prediction of the ads' effectiveness. Continue reading to discover why.

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"Through fMRI research, we're gaining unique insights into the processing of our ads. It shows that they are processed quickly, automatically and emotionally. This gives us the tools to keep optimising our ads and increase brand growth." Dave Brosens, Brand Manager Smint & Frisk

Smint ad: 'Small, handy & intensely fresh'


The small, handy & intensely fresh ad shows quick, positive images of people taking a Smint. They enjoy the Smint, feel fresh and gain more self-confidence.

The multiple images alternate quickly and there is no actual story. You might wonder: Isn't that bad for the effectiveness of the ad? 

The answer is no, and we're here to explain why.

fMRI vs. questionnaires = unconscious vs. conscious processing

Our brain processes information in two pathways: System 1 and System 2. This has been demonstrated in the pioneering study by Daniel Kahneman, who was the first psychologist to win a Nobel Prize in 2002.

  • System 1: responsible for quick, automatic and emotional decisions, often unconsciously.
  • System 2: responsible for rational and well thought-out decisions, the conscious processing pathway which is slower

Kahneman's research has shown that we mainly make decisions based on System 1, to avoid thinking. Our brain likes to avoid thinking, as thinking consumes energy. This contradicts the idea that humans have about ourselves, that we make conscious and well thought-out decisions (System 2). We only think if we really have to.

This is shown when test participants are asked to give their opinion - their conscious response is often different from their unconscious one. Unconscious reactions (or emotions) cannot be captured by questionnaires, but can be captured by fMRI. 

Research question: Is the Smint ad easy to follow?

Smint Reclame-onderzoek Neuro Ad Testing

The Smint ad was studied by a well-known traditional qualitative market research company. Using questionnaires, they asked test participants whether the ad was easy to follow (System 2). The scores on 'Enjoyment' and 'Ease of Understanding' were both very low, which meant that the ad didn't score well.

Several reasons were given for this:

  1. The images alternated too quickly
  2. The ad is too busy
  3. The music is irritating and too busy
  4. The message isn't clear enough

These reasons made it impossible for the participants to enjoy the ad. The questionnaires concluded that the ad should be modified, but the question is: Do participants consciously process the ads visuals (as when answering questionnaires) during real life situations? 


fMRI results showed: the Smint ad has the character of an Effie Award

The results of the fMRI study were completely different. Neurensics used fMRI to measure the unconscious emotions that were activated in the brain by the ad (System 1).

Using our established benchmark for effectiveness, we could see how effective this ad would be. Positive emotions are important here, as an ad that activates more positive than negative emotions is more likely to be effective. The ad scored high on:

  1. Desire
  2. Lust 
  3. Expectation
  4. Value

This is due to the myriad of positive visuals in the ad:

  • People eating a Smint, enjoying it and getting a fresh feeling (activates desire, expectation and reward).
  • The ad shows people gaining self-confidence after taking a Smint. This activates reward as we mirror the emotions of the actors (discover more about this in learning 5).

The score on negative emotions is significantly lower than average, which is a good score. This resulted in a high score on positive emotions and a low score on negatives ones - characteristic of an Effie Award ad: the prize for ads with above-average sales results. Therefore, the Smint ad activated the desired effect.


The study of the traditional market research agency shows that when you ask test participants for their opinion on an ad, they respond with System 2: they think slowly and rationally. However, this isn't the way consumers view ads in real life (unless you're a marketer ;) ). 

Ad processing is done via System 1: fast, automatic and emotional. The quick, alternating visuals in the ad activates unconscious emotions.

Our fMRI study has showed that the activated emotions are very positive, resulting in an above-average effective ad. This ad is therefore very effective for processes in System 1.

Measuring unconscious emotions in the brain with fMRI therefore provides more accurate results than measuring conscious responses using questionnaires.

However, at Neurensics we combine both techniques, because an ad can also have an effect via System 2. We measure System 1 with fMRI and System 2 with an online follow-up survey (questionnaire), so that we can capture the complete effect of an ad.

For testing your ad we recommend fMRI research in combination with an online follow-up study.

And now you:

  • Do you have an ad tested with questionnaires and now want it tested with fMRI?
  • Or, do you want to test your ads?
Please contact us to discuss your research possibilities.


Feel free to contact us about the research possibilities


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