New research shows that smokers are more likely to remember factual, understated public-service announcements (PSAs) than splashy messages designed to grab attention with flashy images, loud music or other techniques.

Lead researcher Daniel Langleben and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania looked at brain images of test subjects exposed to “just the facts” messages or ads packed with drama, frequent cuts, and shocking or surprising visual images. The authors found that participants’ brains showed more activity in the frontal cortex and temporal cortex — the areas associated with attention and memory, respectively — when researchers showed them the soft-pedaled PSAs than the dramatic ones.

Langleben said that the study is the first to show a neurobiological basis for measuring the impact of message sensation value (MSV) — a concept in the health-communications field that refers to how much PSAs use attention-grabbing features. “Our findings suggest that the attention-grabbing high-MSV format may impede the learning and retention of a PSA,” Langleben said. “The findings are also novel in that they offer a general approach for objectively evaluating PSAs before they are released.”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the National Cancer Institute supported the study, which was published in the May 15, 2009 issue of the journal NeuroImage.