What makes people share Facebook video ads

fMRI brain scans tell us your Facebook video ads should have a social-related use for people to share them

Today’s study was performed by analyzing brain reactions (fMRI scans) to Facebook video ads and comes out of the best neuroscience research universities in Japan and Australia.

Fun fact: the researchers had to use fMRI brain scans because when we self-report whether - and why - we would share or not share something online, we usually lie (probably because we don’t know the answer ourselves).

New around here? Subscribe for free so you don’t miss the next tip.

Your Facebook video ads should have a social-related use for people to share them

Impacted metrics: Ad reach | Organic reach
Channels: Social media | Paid media | Video ads


The creative of your Facebook video ad should have a social-related meaning to increase the chances people will share it. For example, you can make the ad:
- About community (i.e. “I also do this! Who else?”)
- An excuse to socialize (i.e. “This made me think of you”)
- Altruistic, about helping others (e.g. this famous Thai ad)


  • If your video ad on social media is social-related (connecting with others, helping others), people are more likely to share it.

  • Previous research shows that in general, people are less likely to share ads than other content.

Why it works

  • Social-related video ads appear to trigger the parts of the brain that are associated with thinking of others, and are connected with sharing - which in turn makes them more likely to share it.

  • This effect seems to be stronger for video ads than other media types. That’s because the audiovisual stimuli, as well as a video’s elements of drama, surprise, likable characters, and a plot, activate the parts of the brain associated with thinking of others.

  • Contrary to previous beliefs, we don’t share ads because it makes us feel good personally (value-related motive), or because we think it represents our personality (self-related motive). Although those are some reasons why we share other content online (e.g. personal posts, news).

  • Bonus: Interested in knowing more about fMRI use and neuroscience in Marketing? HBR did a good write-up last year. (Note: fMRIs record brain activity as it happens, MRIs record one snapshot. Similar to video vs still image).


  • This research has some findings that are different from previous studies. It’s likely because of a more solid method (fMRI) but it could also be because this study was performed on Japanese participants who tend to be quite ‘others-oriented’ while other studies were mostly on Americans who tend to be more individualistic (see Hofstede’s cultural dimensions).

  • We don’t know if the frequency of Facebook use, or the size of one’s network plays a role in sharing likelihood.

  • In the study, participants had to watch and listen to the entire video ad, but usually people only watch the beginning, and without audio.

  • Participants were all Japanese university students in their early 20s, which isn’t a representative sample of the population. This means it could be riskier to generalize the study.

Companies using this

  • Advertising agencies don’t seem to be following this practice yet. This is a recent research field (last 5 years) and much of the early research was conflicting, flawed, or inconclusive.

  • Large companies sometimes test the creative of their ads before releasing them, but they mainly use self-reported evaluations by participants, which have been proven to be unreliable. It’s still rare for companies to test their ads using fMRI brain scans due to the expertise needed and expense involved (an fMRI machine costs $5 million).

Steps to implement

  • If you’re creating a Facebook ad, ask your creatives to give the ad a social-related purpose. You can forward them this tip.

Study type

Neuroscience experiment (fMRI) and market observation, Japan


Motoki, K., Suzuki, S., Kawashima, R., & Sugiura, M. (August 2020). A combination of self-reported data and social-related neural measures forecasts viral marketing success on social media. Journal of Interactive Marketing, 52, 99-117.

[Link to paper]


Tohoku University and University of Melbourne

Remember: Because of the groundbreaking nature of this paper, it could be disproven in the future (although this is rare). It also may not be generalizable to your situation. If it’s a risky change, always test it on a small scale before rolling it out widely.

Want to share feedback or ask a question? -> Reply to this email

Did you enjoy it? -> Please forward this or share it on Slack, it really does make a difference. Thank you!

Was this forwarded to you? -> Subscribe below or read previous articles here