Neuromarketing comes of age

Seems like applied neuroscience has reached another milestone: A company called BrightHouse in Atlanta is already selling neuroimaging-based consulting services for marketing and has apparently been doing so since 2001. Of course, as is often the case with fMRI and other imaging studies, the proof is in the interpretation and it’s debatable how much insight a company can gain from seeing some prefrontal activation with their products.

Here’s a recent New Scientist article on this new area:
They know what you want
New Scientist vol 183 issue 2458 – 31 July 2004, page 36
If neuromarketers can find the key to our consumer desires, will they
be able to manipulate what we buy, asks Emily Singer

WHY DO people who prefer the taste of Pepsi faithfully buy Coke? Will
the Catwoman movie trailer make you want to see the film? And are women
subconsciously drawn to the sight of a bikini-clad model hawking beer
on television?

Scientists and ad execs hope to unravel advertising mysteries like
these with neuromarketing – a new spin on market research, which shuns
customer surveys and focus groups in favour of technologies such as
functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to peer directly into
consumers’ brains. Though the technique has still to prove its
credentials with journal publications, a handful of consultants and
companies have already started spending their marketing budgets on
scanner time.

The idea is to watch what goes on in people’s brains when they see or
think about desirable and undesirable goods – a pair of Armani jeans
versus a supermarket’s own brand, for example. Researchers hope to
learn about our hidden desires and preferences, and how to manipulate
them so companies can flog us more of their products. It conjures up
Orwellian images of commercials targeted to inflame our most secret
desires. Yet some analysts believe neuromarketing is a form of
advertising snake oil, a ploy to make marketers shell out millions for
the latest bunch of bells and whistles. Can neuromarketing truly see
into the mind of the consumer, or is it just a con?

Neuromarketing caught public attention by recreating a famous soda pop
conundrum inside a brain scanner: why is Coke more popular than Pepsi
when more people pick Pepsi in blind taste tests? Neuroimaging expert
Read Montague from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas,
scanned people’s brains using fMRI as they blindly drank either Coke or
Pepsi and reported which tasted best. He found that a region called the
ventral putamen within the striatum lit up most strongly when people
drank their favourite soda. This area is known to be associated with
seeking reward. More people preferred Pepsi, just as the decades-old
challenge said.

But when people were told which soda they were drinking, their
preferences changed: more people chose Coke. And this time the brain
area that showed most activity was the medial prefrontal cortex, a spot
associated with higher cognitive processes. The results – which
Montague hopes to publish soon – showed that people make decisions
based on their memories or impressions of a particular soda, as well as
taste. In the advertising world, this “brand recognition” is one of the
most sought-after qualities advertisers attempt to engender.

While the experiment hasn’t really thrown up any new marketing insights
yet, researchers hope this new approach might help them pin down what
this elusive brand recognition is all about. Clinton Kilts, a
neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta, says it’s about making a
person identify with an object. He found the same prefrontal region
that Montague identified lit up whenever people look at pictures of
things they love. He says the area is associated with self-referential
thinking. He now hopes to learn what sets up these personal
associations. “Say you love Ford Mustangs. Maybe that comes from your
family upbringing around Detroit, or the fact that it was your first
car,” he says.

According to Steven Quartz, a neuroscientist at the California
Institute of Technology in Pasadena, neuromarketing could also uncover
predilections we are unaware of. “Surveys are based on the assumption
that we accurately probe our own preferences,” says Quartz. “But basic
science says that a lot of what underlies our preferences is
unconscious.” From the advertisers’ point of view, neuromarketing’s
strength is that it may hit on subconscious biases that traditional
advertising methods, such as focus groups fail to uncover.

He is designing a neuroimaging package that will help movie studios
measure the success of their trailers. For example, he showed women a
trailer starring wrestler-turned-action hero “The Rock”. In traditional
surveys women generally rate The Rock as unattractive, but their brain
activity says otherwise: areas associated with facial attractiveness
light up when women watch him on screen. Studios could use this
information to try to tweak the movie pitch towards women, Quartz says.

But while Quartz believes his technique will predict blockbusters much
better than surveys do, he still has to prove it. His group plans to
test neuromarketing against traditional questionnaires, as well as
against physiological measures that are much cheaper and easier to
monitor than brain responses, such as the galvanic skin response, which
gives an overall measure of arousal.

While scientists may be excited about the possibilities, neuromarketing
has many critics. Douglas Rushkoff, a New York author who often writes
about the advertising industry, doubts the technique will catch on. He
describes neuromarketing as an elaborate ploy. “I don’t see success
beyond their ability to con marketers into giving them money,” he says.

But others find the very idea frightening. Gary Ruskin, who runs
consumer champion Ralph Nader’s Commercial Alert group based in
Portland, Oregon, says: “Even a small increase in advertising
efficiency could boost advertising-related diseases such as obesity.”
Ruskin has protested against Kilts’s work, which he did in
collaboration with BrightHouse, a marketing consultancy firm based in
Atlanta and one of neuromarketing’s leading lights.

Making companies more moral

Caught between sceptics and downright opponents, Kilts and Joey Reiman,
BrightHouse’s founder and CEO, claim that rather than predicting an
individual’s shopping behaviour, neuromarketing will help them to
understand how people develop preferences. “Our goal is to change
company, not consumer, behaviour,” says Reiman. He adds that this
philosophy could improve advertising ethics. “What if you could, for
example, show a company that their moral and ethical behaviour has a
bigger influence on consumer preference than the colour of their
packaging or current tag line?”

This responsible spin on neuromarketing may be more a reaction to
negative press than a genuine hope for a more moral advertising
industry, however. BrightHouse has recently changed its gung-ho
approach, erasing the term neuromarketing from their website and
replacing it with the blander “neurostrategies”. And it has swapped an
Orwellian logo of two eyes piercing a brain with an innocuous picture
of the BrightHouse building.

The bottom line is that neuromarketing still has some way to go before
it can prove itself effective – either by uncovering our secret wishes
or by convincing companies that good behaviour sells. In the end, the
controversy may amount to nothing. In April, Montague tried to
capitalise on the neuromarketing buzz by organising a conference geared
towards marketing professionals. It was cancelled due to lack of

Perhaps this is because the neuromarketers have yet to find what the
industry would really love: a signature brain pattern that predicts
consumer behaviour. Maybe they never will. “I don’t think we have a buy
button,” says Kilts. Quartz is perhaps nearest, with a plan to compare
the brain activity of people who liked a movie trailer and went to see
the film with those who liked it but stayed home. But even if such a
thing is found, Kilts doesn’t think advertisers could manipulate it.
“We’re not that good and the human brain isn’t that stupid,” he says.

Emily Singer
Emily Singer is a Boston-based writer who favours Coke, even in blind
taste tests

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