September 18th, 2006
What Makes Us Buy?
By Thomas K. Grose
A fast-growing industry called neuromarketing uses science to help marketers understand how we respond to products
On a recent Wednesday night, Eleanor Phipp spent and hour watching commercial television. Nothing unusual about that--except that Phipp, 30, was in a dark room at a South London medical center, lying inside a loudly whirring functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner that mapped her brain as video images flickered before her eyes. Brain scanners, which use radio waves and a powerful magnetic field to trace oxygenated blood to areas of neural activity, are used mainly to study or diagnose brain diseases. But Phipp’s brain was being scrutinized by researchers to see how it reacted to the TV pictures--specifically, whether she responded to ads differently at night than in the morning.
The study is being run by Neurosense, a consulting firm based in Oxford, England, and a leader in the fast-growing industry called neuromarketing. Neuromarketing uses neuroscience--particularly fMRI scanners--to better understand how our brain reacts to advertising, brands and products, reactions that for the most part occur subconsciously. The burgeoning ability to understand how the black box of the brain processes images and messages and reaches decisions potentially gives marketers a new tool to fine-tune ads and marketing campaigns, bolster and extend brands and design better products. “It can give valuable information that’s not particularly easy to access by other techniques,” says Michael Brammer, Neurosense’s chairman and co-founder. “It’s no surprise that some of these bits of information are interesting commercially.”
Interesting? How about holy grail? Companies as diverse as Unilever and DaimlerChrysler have used neuromarketing. Viacom Brand Solutions, the commercial arm of MTV Networks, for instance, had Neurosense study how viewers digest programming and ads. It looked at nine regions of the brain that control such functions as attraction, long- and short-term memory and understanding. A counterintuitive result: commercials generated more activity in eight of those nine cortical regions than the programs did, indicating that ads register.
But programming dominated the ninth area, which controls absorption. Indeed, viewers were so absorbed by the programs that the other areas were nearly dormant. More predictably, the study also found that ads work best when their content is in harmony with the programs they interrupt. An ad for the alcopop WKD, for instance, registered more viewer interest than a Red Cross appeal when both appeared during a South Park clip. Another Neurosense study, for PHD Media, a media-buying agency, looked at which areas of the brain are most receptive to different media--TV, print and radio. PHD used the results to develop software it calls Neuroplanning, which better matches ads to media.
Those kinds of options have produced a boom across Europe in neuromarketing consultants, including Neuroconsult, which hung out its shingle in Vienna earlier this year and is run by Peter Walla, a neurobiologist who teaches at Vienna University and two other schools. German researcher Peter Kenning says when he did a Google Internet search on the term neuromarketing five years ago, he turned up a couple of hits. Today a similar search yields more than 200,000. FMRI technology emerged only about 15 years ago. Efforts to combine it with marketing began in the late 1990s. (Neurosense was launched in 1997.) The appellation neuromarketing popped up several years later, possibly coined by Ale Smidts, a marketing professor at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. It’s essentially a subgenre of another emerging discipline, neuroeconomics. “Neuromarketing is seen as more negative,” Smidts says, because of marketing’s commercial connotations.
The field got a high-profile, scholarly boost two years ago when a study by Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, published in the academic journal Neuro, used fMRI technology to determine that cola drinkers subconsciously have warmer feelings for the Coca-Cola brand, and that gives Coke an edge over Pepsi, even though Pepsi performs as well as Coke in blind taste tests.
Brain scanning is the field’s dominant technology, but others are used as well, often in conjunction with fMRIs. Magnetoencephalography (MEG), a technology that can read electrical signals pulsating from brain cells, is popular because it detects how quickly the brain reacts to stimuli. But unlike fMRI scans, MEG can’t identify which parts of the brain are reacting. And that’s important, since researchers say it’s the interplay between the deeper, older, primitive brain, where our emotions reside, and the more logical neocortex, which informs our decision making. And because the dance between the old- and new-brain areas occurs in the subconscious, that’s information focus groups or polls can never determine.
Are there limits to neuromarketing’s reach? FMRI studies are expensive. Brammer says a medium-size study could cost from $94,000 to $188,000. Less expensive options can answer some marketing questions, though. For Unilever, Walla recently used a startle-reflex method that measures muscle control of eye blinks to determine that eating ice cream makes people happier than eating yogurt or chocolate. Another drawback of scanners: lying in one is hardly a natural environment for watching TV or spotting brands. But new versions that let subjects sit up under contraptions that resemble salon hair dryers should increase the comfort factor.
Marketers’ use of neuroscience technologies has alarmed some consumer groups, mainly in the U.S., which fear that it could lead to the discovery of an inner buy button, which, when pressed, would turn us into roboshoppers. Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, an advertising watchdog group, says if neuromarketing boosts advertising’s effectiveness even marginally, that’s potentially dangerous. “We already have an epidemic of marketing-related diseases,” ranging from obesity to Type 2 diabetes to pathological gambling,” he says. An even more intrusive technology may be looming. Cambridge University computer scientist Peter Robinson led a team of people, including colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that developed software enabling computers to read minds. A video camera focuses on 24 facial features from which the software can often decipher a person’s mental state, including comprehension, boredom and excitement. Robinson says the program could be used to find the right moment to sell someone a product online.
Walla rejects the idea of a buy button as “science fiction,” and most researchers say the technology allows them only to observe how brains work, not to control them. Says Brammer: “I have got a lot of respect for the power of the human spirit to resist being manipulated.” As proof, Smidts says, “a lot of advertising doesn’t work. It’s hard to persuade and influence people.”
There’s no shortage of academic debate over the merging of neuroscience and marketing. The journal Nature Neuroscience, under the headline BRAIN SCAM?, editorialized that too many practitioners’ claims remain unpublished in peer-reviewed journals. But the dearth of published results is largely the result of businesses’ wanting to keep their findings secret. Brammer admits that the data deficit leads to “some scientists interpreting what we’re doing skeptically.”
Can the marketplace be as effective an arbiter of quality scholarship as refereed journals? Perhaps. Deliver too many bad findings based on sloppy science, and you won’t remain in business for long. Since Neurosense’s revenues are up threefold in the past year, you don’t need a brain scanner to see that neuromarketers will be attracting business for some time to come.