It’s true, celebrity faces sell shoes

In promoting their company’s products, marketing staff are keen to enlist the services of celebrities. But does it really work to have Victoria Beckham extolling the virtues of a particular brand of lingerie or Jennifer Lopez singing the praises of a perfume? It does and brain research now shows why: seeing famous faces elicits positive memories, which are then linked to the product being advertised.

Mirre Stallen used brain scans to test whether women’s brains really do make the link between famous faces and buying shoes. Her research shows that this marketing strategy has a beneficial effect: seeing famous faces elicits positive feelings, which are then linked to the product being advertised.

Ms Stallen subjected her female test subjects to brain scans using a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scanner at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour of Radboud University Nijmegen. The test subjects were shown faces of famous women, as well as faces of equally beautiful yet unknown women. Sometimes, the test subject was shown women’s shoes alongside the faces. And it turned out that their brains actively linked the footwear to memories connected to the female celebrities. Brain activity showed that positive affect was transferred from the celebrity to the shoe product. The research findings will be published shortly in the Journal of Economic Psychology.

Celebrity + shoe = feeling good

Looking at a famous face automatically stirs memories. Mirre Stallen says, “We could tell this because of increased activity in those brain areas playing an import role in memory function. These areas were more active when the female participants were looking at a famous face instead of an unknown one.”

What happened in a subject’s brain when a shoe was shown alongside the famous face was quite remarkable. The researchers saw special activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, the part of the brain involved in decision-making. “This supports our hypothesis that the positive feelings people have when they’re seeing famous people are spilling over to the product. We think so because this brain area is used for making positive associations.”

Unknown + shoe = neutral feelings

When the trial subjects saw the shoes next to beautiful but unknown women, this brain activity was not observed. “Apparently, a celebrity evokes more positive memories than an equally attractive yet non-famous person. So a pleasant memory of a night out to the cinema where you watched a film featuring that funny actress can be linked to a particular brand, and can make you feel more positive about that brand. And you may be more inclined to buy products from that brand.”

Does this also work for men? Mirre says: “Probably. It’s just that we can’t say that with certainty. So far, we’ve only examined the effect of female celebrities on the brains of women.” Listen to the interview with Mirre Stallen (in Dutch) on Radio 538 of 16 July, 2010.

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