Brain sales

Through neuroimaging, marketers hope to peer inside consumers' minds

By Scott LaFee

July 28, 2004

CRISTINA MARTINEZ / Photo illustration
MRI BY ALFRED PASEIKA / Photo Researchers Inc.

By the time you reach age 65, assuming you're an average American, you will have watched more than 2 million television commercials and been exposed to roughly 136,692,500 ads in all forms. You'll spend eight months of your life simply opening junk mail.

We are deluged in advertising, deafened by its endless, unwavering cry to buy. We know it and we hate it.

Advertisers admit as much. In a recent poll by the American Association of Advertising Agencies, 61 percent of respondents said they thought the amount of advertising and marketing had gotten "out of control." A similar percentage said they had become more negative toward advertising than in years past. More than half declared that they "avoid buying products that overwhelm them with advertising and marketing."

It's that last point that particularly maddens advertisers. They want commercial messages that work. The more effective the message, the fewer times they need to run it (which saves money) and the less chance they'll antagonize potential customers.

But figuring out what makes an effective sales pitch, what will persuade a consumer to, say, purchase one brand of cola over a virtually identical competitor, has always been more art than science.

The brand the brain drinks

When subjects don't know what they're drinking, their neural activity, revealed through brain scans, suggests they prefer Pepsi over Coke. But when consumers are told what they're drinking, it's a different story. Those who believe they're drinking Coke show activity in the prefontal cortex, an area that governs conscious thought. Pepsi drinkers don't. To scientists, this indicates that even though Pepsi tastes better, Coke wins out because it's linked with having a really good time. This is the kind of mental image that can only be generated through advertising.

Scan and deliver

Today: Marketers tout neuroimaging as the best way to "get into people's heads" and learn what consumers really think. Skeptics say the science is too new to do that, and the concept is downright Orwellian.

Next Wednesday: Body scans are supposed to detect early signs of disease or spot worrisome abnormalities. But no two bodies are exactly alike. How do you know when the results mean it's time to act and when to say, "Hey, that's just me."

Until now.

In cities from Pasadena to London, in university labs and hospital wings, researchers and advertising executives are peering directly into the minds of would-be consumers. They are looking for biological evidence of brand preference: Why someone prefers Pepsi to Coke, buys a truck rather than a car or simply ignores an advertising pitch altogether.

It's called neuromarketing. Proponents say it's a method – based on sound science – to more precisely divine what consumers really want or don't want in products and services. Skeptics say that's just hyperbole. Others worry that it is not. Opponents say neuromarketing, if taken to its logical extreme, is an Orwellian scheme that will harm society and reduce individual free will.

"It sounds like something that could have happened in the former Soviet Union, for the purposes of behavior control," says Gary Ruskin, executive director of the advertising watchdog group Commercial Alert, which has called for a federal investigation of neuromarketing research, the imposition of guidelines and, perhaps, an outright ban.

Medical breakthroughs

Quest for learning This study guide is prepared by the Newspaper In Education Department of the Union-Tribune as an aid for teachers and parents. It is aligned with the California State Reading/Language Arts Framework and theMathematics and Science Standards. The questions refer to the article onneuroimaging.

1. Advertisers use several basic techniques to convince people to use their products. One technique is repetition. What are some others? Do present advertising methods target any specific areas of the brain?

2. This article covers several uses of neuroimaging in the fields of medicine and advertising. Think of some ways it could be applied in other fields.

3. Your brain may not lie, but can you change your mind? If you realize that someone is attempting to manipulate your choices, could that change your perception of a product? If so, then how might advertisers alter their neuromarketing strategies?

4. List the ethical issues involved in neuromarketing. Could there really be Orwellian consequences? Should there be regulations governing the use of this technology? If so, then who should develop and enforce these regulations?

5. Work with your science teacher to develop a science-fair project based on the information in this article.

There's no disputing that neuroimaging has been a boon to medicine and basic research. Technologies like positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have enabled doctors to spot abnormal neural activity in living patients in something close to real time. These tools have helped neuroscientists begin to parse the physiological underpinnings of behavior, addiction and consciousness.

Some marketers say brain scanning can be equally useful in deciphering how consumers think or feel – and that using these erstwhile medical technologies toward that goal is no less noble.

"Imagine being able to observe and quantify a consumer's true response to something without the influence of groupthink and other biases that plague current research approaches," said Brian Hankin in 2002, at the public debut of the Institute for Thought Sciences, a division of BrightHouse, an Atlanta-based advertising and consulting firm whose clients have included corporate giants like Coca-Cola, Home Depot, Delta Airlines and MetLife.

"This could not only help marketers truly understand why specific marketing efforts are effective, but it could also help societal concerns such as identifying why the current anti-drug campaign has not effectively deterred our youth from using drugs."

BrightHouse, which conducts neuromarketing research using fMRI machines at Emory University Hospital, has predicted bold results.

"We are crossing the chasm," said Adam Koval, the Thought Institute's chief operating officer, "and bringing a new paradigm in analytic rigor to the world of marketing and advertising."

Koval told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. that neuromarketing "will actually result in higher product sales or in brand preference or in getting customers to behave in the way they want them to behave."

That remains to be seen. BrightHouse has conducted only a single neuromarketing study, whose results remain unpublished, though executives say they are looking for a suitable science journal. The company claims to have a Fortune 500 client interested in using neuroimaging as an advertising tool, but BrightHouse executives have thus far declined to identify the client or describe their work. Repeated phone calls and e-mails to BrightHouse scientists in Atlanta were not returned.

"This is a big part of the problem," said Ruskin, who co-founded Commercial Alert with Ralph Nader in 1998 to oppose perceived excesses in marketing and advertising. "Nobody at BrightHouse will say anything. They've never responded to me. What are they hiding and why? What are they so afraid of? Why won't they explain what they're doing?"

Brain sales

Getty Images
Traditional forms of advertising may get a jolt when marketers use brain scans to learn how consumers respond to their products.
Brains in living color

Some things, however, are known. The star workhorse of neuroimaging is the fMRI machine, a large and daunting device that uses powerful magnets and radio waves to paint electronic portraits of the brain in action. The technology is based on the idea that when brain cells become active, they demand more oxygen, or fuel. Oxygenated blood flowing to these neurons alters the surrounding magnetic field. Using radio waves, an fMRI machine pinpoints these minute magnetic variations and identifies which parts of the brain are active and to what degree. Red signals high intensity; yellow, green and blue represent lower levels.

PET scans work by monitoring the flow of blood infused with a weakly radioactive fluid. Radiation detectors mark the portions of the brain requiring more oxygen-carrying blood. A newer technique, called magnetoencephalography or MEG identifies changes in the microscopic magnetic fields of individual cells caused by neuronal electrical activity. MEG is even more refined than fMRI because it records the timing of neuronal events in the thousandths of a second, giving researchers a much more precise idea of when cells became active and in what sequence.

All these technologies depend upon the idea of brain mapping, that different regions or components of the brain handle different tasks and responsibilities. For example, the hippocampus deals with short-term memory. The basal ganglia coordinates fine motion, such as fingertip movement. Broca's area processes music and language.

Thus, when an fMRI scan shows heightened activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex – an area associated with reflexive reactions – researchers conclude the patient is responding emotionally. When the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex lights up – a seat of logic – the patient is thinking more rationally.

This deductive process has served medical science well. Neuroscientists have been able to tease out why substances like cocaine and chocolate can be addictive, but not broccoli or Brussels sprouts. (Taste aside, the latter pair don't much stimulate the brain's reward centers, like the nucleus accumbens and hypothalamus.)

It's not hard to see why marketers would also embrace such a technology. Most serious advertising is predicated on focus groups, gatherings of the presumed target audience who are asked to evaluate a product, service or ad campaign. Marketers then make changes accordingly.

But focus groups are inherently suspect, say marketing experts. "People are notoriously unreliable about telling you what they really like versus what they think you want to hear," said Martin Paulus, an associate professor of psychiatry at UCSD. Or, conversely, focus group participants can be overly negative, figuring it's their job to be critical, even to a fault.

On the other hand, "the brain does not lie," said Paulus. If an fMRI patient is presented with an image that is sexually arousing, the brain registers that emotion in the almond-sized amygdala – just as it does fear – even though the patient may not be consciously aware of either emotion.

The attraction for marketers is getting an unvarnished peek at people's true feelings. In written materials, BrightHouse executives have defended neuromarketing as a sort of consumer empowerment. They say that by allowing companies greater insight into their purchasing behaviors, consumers influence and redirect corporate behavior. In other words, if a consumer's brain scan suggests he appreciates better food over faster service, a smart company will improve food quality.

Neuroimaging with an eye toward commerce has already produced some notable results, albeit mostly in an academic setting.

Read Montague, a neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine, used fMRI technology in a high-tech version of the old "Pepsi Challenge" blind taste test. In his experiments, test subjects who picked Pepsi showed significantly greater neural activity in the ventral putamen – the part of the brain thought to process feelings of reward, such as taste – than those subjects who chose Coca-Cola.

Montague then tweaked the experiment, informing subjects before the test when they were drinking Coke. Astoundingly, all of the subjects said they preferred Coke. Their brain scans displayed increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain scientists say governs higher-level cognitive powers, such as conscious thought.

When Montague repeated the test, telling subjects when they were drinking Pepsi, he didn't get the same kind of result. Their medial prefrontal cortices did not light up nearly so much. Montague's conclusion: Pepsi wins the taste test, but Coke prevails with customers who associate it with having a more vibrant, fun lifestyle – the kind of mental image that can only be generated through advertising.

Susan Linn, a Harvard psychologist, worries that neuromarketing will make advertising too effective. Instead of producing commercials that are at least somewhat hit or miss, neuromarketers will use brain research to zero in on the brain's "buy button."

Such a region does not actually exist, but the metaphor is real enough.

"Advertisers and marketers are fond of talking about individual choice, that people are free to ignore their pitches and buy what they want," said Linn, who is the author of "Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood."

"But reality is much more complicated than that. Even consumers who think they're acting out of free will are responding to cues they're not aware of. Advertising works because it bypasses cognition and works on emotion."

Repeated objections

Earlier this month, Ruskin and Commercial Alert asked the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation to investigate neuromarketing. In a letter to Sen. John McCain, chairman of the commerce committee, Ruskin predicted that unfettered neuromarketing would exacerbate public health scourges like obesity, diabetes, alcoholism, smoking and gambling – all deeply affected by advertising. Children, he said, would be the most vulnerable targets – again.

"Neuromarketing would make advertising work really, really well," said Ruskin.

Neither McCain nor the commerce committee have yet responded to Ruskin's call for an investigation. The chances they will seem slim. Two similar efforts by Commercial Alert have already been stymied.

Late last year, the group asked Emory University officials to end BrightHouse's fMRI experiments, saying they were unethical, inappropriate and unnecessary. School officials dismissed the objections as misinformed and unfounded.

A subsequent request to the federal Office for Human Research Protections to intervene, suggesting BrightHouse's experiments at Emory might violate medical research guidelines, was also rejected.

For its part, BrightHouse, on its Web site, defends its work as ethical and scientifically valid.

"We are not capable of, nor do we desire, to 'read' people's private thoughts and feelings or use study inferences to induce unwilled behavior. We are based on doing studies in the scientific method, accessible to the public domain, that test hypotheses concerning human behavior related to business contexts," states the company.

BrightHouse isn't alone in pursuing neuromarketing. A 7-year-old British company called Neurosense makes similar claims about the technology's potential. The Mind of the Market Laboratory at the Harvard Business School conducts neuroimaging research with corporate dollars, then shares the results with its sponsors.

Closer to home, Steven Quartz, director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, has used brain scans to monitor neural activity of volunteers watching movie trailers. Quartz and a Los Angeles marketing company are reportedly developing a brain-scanning service that will help film studios evaluate which trailers are likely to attract the most moviegoers.

Bottom lines

But does neuromarketing really work?

In the sense that fMRIs and PET scans offer insight into how brains function, the answer is yes. Certainly scientists rely upon neuroimaging to assess and explain aspects of human behavior. But many experts warn that it's a long and tenuous link between recording which brain regions become active when someone thinks about toothpaste and making conclusions about why people buy Crest and not Colgate.

The human brain is almost inconceivably complicated. Scientists do not have a universally accepted brain map, one that definitively explains the role and function of each and every neural region. Human thought and feeling make up an orchestra of neurons firing in symphony and sympathy. It is exceedingly hard to pick out the individual notes.

For example, when Dana Small, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., took PET scans of volunteers while feeding them pieces of chocolate, she discovered that five areas in their brains lit up while the participants were hungry. When they were sated, eating chocolate activated only three regions – all different from the hungry areas.

"We're pretty good at identifying brain regions associated with certain words or ideas," said Jonathan Moreno, a professor of biomedical ethics at the University of Virginia. "But the science is still comparatively primitive. It's hard to see how exactly knowing what parts of a brain light up will give an advantage to an advertiser."

Richard Glen Boire, co-director of the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics in Davis, thinks neuromarketing in its current state has been grossly overhyped. "Muzak is far more powerful at the moment, as far as technologies being used to manipulate desire or to bypass or trigger parts of the reasoning process," he said.

Linn, the Harvard psychologist, is less sanguine.

"Whether neuroimaging is doable at the moment or not is not the point. It's still cause for concern. We're now talking about marketers actually invading people's minds and that's just plain creepy."