Branding on the Brain

Professor Bruce Bartholow

Prof. Bruce Bartholow and his colleagues at the University of Colorado wondered whether pairing beer brands with logos from their universities would increase students’ brain responses to those brands, and whether the magnitude of these brain responses might predict students’ alcohol use.

Jordan Yount
News Source: 
College of Arts & Science
Departments: 
Psychological Sciences

Marketers and advertisers routinely try to affiliate their products with U.S. colleges and universities. For instance, cellular network providers strike deals that allow them to become the “official wireless carrier” of some university or other. New research from Professor Bruce Bartholow of the University of Missouri’s Department of Psychological Sciences suggests that marketing campaigns that affiliate beer brands with universities might make those brands more appealing to underage students, creating a potential for those students to be attracted to those brands and, thus, drink more.

“The pairing of an image that represents a valued group—your university—with some product makes that product seem more desirable,” Bartholow says. “In most cases that practice is probably benign—if say, a university wanted to market facial tissue. But when it is a product that is potentially dangerous or illegal for a segment of the population, then that could be problematic.”

Different Campuses, Same Results

Based on the idea that people associate their social in-groups with positive qualities including trust and safety, Bartholow and his colleagues at the University of Colorado wondered whether pairing beer brands with logos from their universities would increase students’ brain responses to those brands, and whether the magnitude of these brain responses might predict students’ alcohol use. In one study, underage students at the University of Missouri and the University of Colorado were shown pictures of their university’s logos paired with logos for Pabst Blue Ribbon beer or FIJI water as well as images of the beer and water brands paired with an outgroup (another, less-familiar university). The researchers measured a particular type of brain activity, known as the P3 response, which is associated with the incentive value (reward value) of the images being viewed. One month later, the students completed a survey measuring their drinking over the past 30 days.

Beverage stimuli chart

“The brain response to the beer paired with their university logo was strongest among people who more strongly identified with their university—so if you consider being a student at your university an important part of who you are, you had a bigger response,” Bartholow says. In addition, “people who showed the largest responses to that combination of beer logo plus their university logo were the ones who showed increases in drinking a month after the study.”

Basketball and Beer

In a second study, Bartholow and his colleagues tried to mimic real-world conditions by having students watch video clips from either an MU or a CU basketball game (both teams played—and beat—the University of California during the 2009–10 NCAA men’s basketball season) with three commercial breaks interspersed during the clips. The commercial breaks each included ads for some unrelated products in addition to an ad for either Dasani water or Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Following the game clips, students were shown images of PBR logos, Dasani logos, and various filler images while the researchers monitored their brain activity. Bartholow says they wanted to know if having seen an ad for a product influences the brain’s response to an image of that product a few minutes later, and whether there is a difference for people who saw their home team or another team play.

“The bottom line is we see the biggest brain responses to the beer logos among people who saw a home team game and who saw the PBR ads during the game,” he says.

Bartholow says the research helps contribute to an understanding of how our brains are susceptible to alcohol marketing as well as the risks for underage alcohol use. He says it also shows the importance of social context and social motives in determining the effectiveness of alcohol-related marketing.

“A lot of research has shown that we tend to trust things that we see as part of our own group,” he says. “It’s this in-group trust, or safety effect, that we want to make sure is not being transferred to something that is potentially dangerous.”

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