December 2nd, 2002
The Science of Shopping
By Margo Kelly
Corporations are going to new lengths to probe the minds of consumers.
A company in Atlanta is scanning people’s brains with MRIs, in an effort to
record our subconscious thoughts about products and ads.
The process has been dubbed neuromarketing. It’s being hailed as a giant leap
in the science of selling, but the technique is also raising some concerns.
For corporations that want to sell us stuff, the shopper’s mind is a territory
to be mapped. In a hospital in Atlanta, researchers are trying to do that mapping.
They’re paying people to lie inside MRI machines and look at pictures of products
while the machine snaps images of their brains.
The Brighthouse Institute for Thought Sciences claims it’s closing the gap
between business and science with the goal of getting us to behave the
way corporations want us to.
"What it really does is give unprecedented insight into the consumer mind.
And it will actually result in higher product sales or in brand preference or
in getting customers to behave the way they want them to behave," company
executive Adam Koval told Marketplace.
Back in Toronto, we caught up with Cathy Denison as she was trying on a fur
"I look like a movie star. You’ve got to have an attitude when you wear
a coat like that That’s the kind of thing, I don’t need it, but I want
And that’s exactly what neuro-marketers want to do strengthen our emotional
bonds with products.
Advertising veteran Allan Middleton teaches marketing at York University. He
says neuromarketing is in its early stages and he’s mostly skeptical
about what it can do.
"Theoretically, if you could possibly not only understand how people respond
in a laboratory situation to a buying stimulus, then it will certainly help
marketers forecast behavior. Well, if it works which by the way I don’t
think it will I mean, you get to 1984, and more importantly, Aldous Huxley’s
Brave New World."
Middleton doesn’t think there’s one magic technique or image that
will compel us to buy something, because there are so many products and messages
competing for our attention.
Still, neuromarketing is attracting some corporations with a lot money to spend
- though Brighthouse’s Adam Koval won’t say which companies are interested:
"We can’t actually talk about the specific names of the companies, but
they are global consumer product companies. Right now, they would rather not
be exposed. We have been kind of running under the radar with a lot of the breakthrough
The possibility that neuromarketing may work worries Toronto psychologist
Will Cupchik. He treats a growing number of people with shopping disorders.
"The potential for good and the potential for ill are both huge here,"
says Cupchik. "I don’t know what we will call brainwashing, but until we
come up with a better term, I would suggest it’s at least a kissing cousin."
"That’s completely unfounded," refutes Adam Koval of the Brighthouse
Institute for Thought Sciences. "It has nothing to do with controlling
consumer thought nothing to do with manipulating consumer thought. All
we can do is observe and learn."
Koval adds his research is aimed at making ads more effective in helping consumers
either buy or become more loyal to a brand.
Marketers have been observing us for decades and sharpening their persuasive
techniques. They have used everything from focus groups and dream therapy to
skin tests. Using science to map the unconscious mind of consumers is the latest
trick and it has some ivy league backing.
Neuromarketing was born at Harvard University. In the late 1990s, marketing
professor Gerry Zaltman and his associate began scanning people’s brains for
corporations. He’s stopped that work now, and he’s concentrating on another
method to probe the subconscious mind of consumers.
Along with neuromarketing, Zaltman has patented a technique called ZMET
which uses pictures to help uncover deeply held thoughts and the metaphors
"Ninety-five per cent or more of all cognition, all thinking, including
emotion, occurs below levels of awareness, so the big challenge is: How do we
surface what’s going on in the unconscious?" Zaltman asks.
Zaltman’s technique isn’t revolutionary it’s a refinement of other psychological
marketing tools. But he’s popular. His clients include GM, Proctor and Gamble,
and Coca Cola. In Canada, the Royal Bank and Molson’s are using ZMET
and Canadian Tire used it to help develop a recent ad campaign.
Companies won’t talk
Companies didn’t want to talk to us about ZMET and it remains a secret
who’s using neuromarketing. That doesn’t surprise Allan Middleton.
"Some of these techniques are controversial, because they are trying to
get at people’s less-than-totally conscious and less than totally rational response."
Zaltman’s goal is to use ZMET to make the most emotionally compelling ads,
then test them by scanning people’s brains. But he doesn’t like to talk too
much publicly about his groundbreaking work on neuromarketing.
"We found there was a lot of promise in the use of this technique, that
we have a long way to go to fully understand how to do it, but it nevertheless
is very promising."
He knows that promise is frightening to some.
People are naturally apprehensive that it might be used to do harm, especially
if the nature of the technology isn’t understood, and this has some spooky qualities
to it that are unjustified but still real."
York University’s Allan Middleton says consumers are not as naive about advertising
as they used to be.
"Unlike the 50s and 60s, we know that marketers are trying to manipulate
us. That is no suprise to anybody any longer. The younger you get in the population,
the more they totally understand that, the more people kind of accept it, and
it’s because they know ultimately, they are still in control."
Middleton concedes there are vulnerable groups impressionable children,
and adults with low self-esteem who can be compelled to buy things to
feel older, younger, more attractive, more loved.
If I feel a little bit crummy or a little bit down
my fallback strategy
is shopping," Cathy Denison said.
But she doesn’t have a problem with neuromarketing or any other subconscious
"I think if they can find a way to help us find a way into that magic
little feeling that shopping can give you if you do it right and you
get the right thing and you don’t spend too much money, hats off to them. Thank
you. I think it’s a service."
What is neuromarketing?
Neuromarketing uses traditional neuroscientific methods to determine the drivers
behind consumer choices.
Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), researchers map brain patterns of participants,
to reveal how they respond to a particular advertisement or product.
This information can be used as the basis for new advertising campaigns and
Neuromarketing is being sold to corporations as a giant leap that
will revolutionize the industry. It revolves around the notion that consumers
choose which products and brands to buy almost entirely subconsciously.
Adam Koval is chief operating officer at Thought Sciences, the marketing group
that pioneered neuromarketing. He says what makes the science unique is that
while advertisers have long designed campaigns aimed at capturing audience interest,
this method for the first time provides insight into what drives consumer action.
Im not interested in whether or not you like my ad, says
Koval. Im interested in whether or not its effective in helping
you either buy, or become more loyal to, my brand.
How does it work?
Practitioners claim the method is simple to use. They determine what a given
client wants to know about a product or campaign, and then develop a test that
can use any one of the five senses to determine that. As the participant is
shown a particular stimulus, his or her brain is monitored with an MRI.
The image produced by the machine indicates brain activity, and that activity
is mapped. The researcher then interprets the brain patterns, determining whether
the participant liked what he or she was experiencing, and to what degree.
Neuromarketing practitioners tout it as being more effective than other advertising
techniques, because the information it provides is pure and not tainted by participant
As Adam Koval explains, If you look at traditional research, thats
biased by self-reporting biases, peoples ability to articulate of the
difference between conscious and unconscious thought, he explains. Weve
been able to actually get beyond all those biases, to have very pure information
of how a customer would respond to a product or to a brand.
Who uses it?
Its difficult to determine exactly which companies have used neuromarketing
corporations generally prefer not to speak publicly about their involvement
with this controversial new science. Among the companies known to have sponsored
neuromarketing research are:
* Coca Cola
* General Motors
What is ZMET?
The first patented marketing research tool in the United States, ZMET stands
for the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Method. It combines neurobiology, psychoanalysis,
linguistics, and art theory to uncover consumer preferences.
The ZMETs defining characteristic is the use of metaphor to elicit consumers
unconscious attitudes towards particular products and brands. Metaphors
are essential to how we think, theyre essential for us to understand what
is said to us, and theyre essential for how we process that information,
explains ZMET architect Gerald Zaltman. Its essential for how we
represent to other people what we think, how we feel, why we do what we do.
The theory behind the use of the ZMET is that metaphor elicitation can tap
into the real driving forces behind consumer choices. These choices are often
unconscious and therefore difficult to extract through traditional market research
methods, like focus groups and surveys. And since metaphors are so common in
our day-to-day communication for representing how we think and feel, theyre
logical for participants to grasp. In fact, according to one study, we
use about six metaphors for every minute of speech. So its very prominent
in our lives, says Zaltman.
How does it work?
Each paid participant in a ZMET study is usually asked to think about a product
or brand during the week leading up to their lab interview. They are required
to select eight to 10 pictures - from magazines, catalogues, and photo albums
- that represent their thoughts and feelings about that product or brand, and
bring those images with them to the interview site. Zaltman then gets them to
create a digital collage of their images using Adobe Photoshop.
Zaltman then conducts a probing interview, to find out the meaning behind the
images that have been created. Zaltman has found, for example, that one of the
most common metaphors that participants identify is transformation the
idea that a particular product can transform them into something else. Zaltmans
clients can then emphasize the positive qualities his participants identify
with their product, while minimizing the negative ones, in future campaigns.
Who uses it?
Since Zaltman began using ZMET nearly ten years ago, he has completed more
than 200 studies. Zaltmans past ZMET clients include:
* Coca Cola
* Proctor and Gamble
* General Motors
* Eastman Kodak
* General Mills
* Bank of America
Canadian clients include:
* Canadian Tire
* Royal Bank