September 1st, 2003

In Search of the Buy Button

By Melanie Wells

It could be a scene from a new age salon. Eight young women squirm under electrode-studded
caps in a dark, small room in Greenwich, England. "Relax," intones
Nicholas Coomans, a market researcher. "Imagine you are sitting on your
own sofa for 20 minutes of TV." Coomans turns off the light and slips into
an adjacent room so he can watch as the subjects take in a taped sitcom and
six commercials. Coomans and his colleague, cognitive neuroscientist João
Neves, aren’t watching for facial expressions, body language or verbal feedback.
They’re interested only in their subjects’ brains, which are abuzz with electrical
activity, recorded as rows of squiggly lines crawling across the screen of a
Dell laptop. The electroencephalograph picks up cognitive functions in 12 different
regions of the brain, showing memory recall and the level of attention paid
to visual and aural stimuli.

Are the subjects really focusing on pitches for Kit Kat candy, Smirnoff vodka
and the Volkswagen Passat? Are they forming emotional attachments to these products?
Unlike the people answering questionnaires or participating in focus groups,
brain waves don’t lie. An activity spike in the left prefrontal cortex--an "approach"
response to the image of a Kit Kat chocolate bar--would suggest the subject
is attracted to the brand image or message. When the right prefrontal cortex
gets jumpy, it indicates, in this experiment, instinctive revulsion to an obnoxious,
tongue-wagging character who pops up in a commercial for Carling beer.

When researchers zero in on electrical activity in yet another area, they can
tell which parts of commercial messages, if any, are encoded in the experimental
subjects’ long-term memories. "People who are more likely to purchase a
product show significantly higher memory encoding than those who are less likely,"
explains Richard Silberstein, a neuroscientist with the Brain Sciences Institute
at the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. He developed
the headgear used in Greenwich.

Using machines that detect brain tumors and strokes to determine whether pink
satin underthings will outsell black ones or if people really like pickles on
their hamburgers--could this yield practical results? Some big marketers are
sufficiently intrigued to put research money into the idea. Among the companies
looking into whether brain signals can supplement or replace traditional tests
of consumer response to commercials are General Motors, Ford of Europe, and
Camelot, the U.K.’s national lottery operator.

Advertising, for the moment, remains more art than science. Brand marketers
have tried appealing to people’s emotions as well as to their sense of reason.
They’ve tried guilt, anxiety, envy, fear, humor and suspense. There’s no guarantee
that they’ll hit the mark by decoding synaptic firings and measuring fluctuations
in blood flow.

But they can try. Neuroscientists say that by peering inside your head they
can tell whether you identify more strongly with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter,
say, than with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Frodo. A beverage company can choose one new
juice or soda over another based on which flavor trips the brain’s reward circuitry.
It’s conceivable that movies and TV programs will be vetted before their release
by brain-imaging companies. A "fascinating" possibility, says William
Raduchel, until recently the chief technology officer at AOL Time Warner, who
explored using MRI technology for that purpose last fall. "It’s a little
like mind reading," says Henrik Walter, a neurologist and psychiatrist
with the University Clinic of Ulm, Germany, where he conducts brain-imaging
work for DaimlerChrysler.

All this is moving toward an elusive goal: to find a "buy button"
inside the skull and to test products, packaging and advertising for their ability
to activate it. So far, researchers are figuring out which brain states facilitate
product recognition and choice; they’re related to primal urges like those for
power, sex and sustenance. As for brand loyalty, it turns out that memory and
emotion play a big role. "In the not-too-distant future, firms will be
able to tell precisely if an advertising campaign or product redesign triggers
the brain activity and neurochemical release associated with memory and action,"
predicts James Bailey, professor of organizational behavior at George Washington

Folks have been trying for decades to decode what motivates shoppers. Economist
and social critic Thorstein Veblen took a crack at it in The Theory of the Leisure
Class, the 1899 classic that wryly posited the theory of "conspicuous consumption,"
his phrase for keeping up with the Joneses. In the 1930s George Gallup began
polling people and peddling his findings to companies desperate for information
about buyers. Twenty years later big ad agencies were tapping psychologists
such as Ernest Dichter, founder of the Institute for Motivational Research.
Some of Dichter’s preachings--among them: that marketers should offer absolution
to consumers who indulge in guilty pleasures like smoking cigarettes or eating
sweets--seem laughably simple today.

If the fanciful quest hasn’t changed, the tools of the trade have. There’s
eye tracking to monitor what people look at on a page or screen and for how
long. Measuring galvanic skin response--changes in the electrical resistance,
that is--can gauge emotional involvement. "So much of what drives our behavior
happens without our awareness, how can business learn what people don’t know
they know? This is where these tools fit in," says Gerald Zaltman, a professor
emeritus at the Harvard Business School and author of How Customers Think.

No tool gets more use than the Zamboni-size functional magnetic resonance imaging
machine, which takes neural eavesdropping to a new level. The $2.5 million device
uses a large magnet to induce radio signals from chemicals in the brain and
thereby monitor blood flow. It differs from the MRI of medical tests in making
moving images rather than still ones. Thinking during tasks shows up in color
in cross-sectional images, recorded as the subject lies with his head inside
the scanner.

There are downsides. One is that the coffinlike confines spook claustrophobes,
possibly distorting their reactions to stimuli. The other is that brain imaging
is expensive. The moving-image MRI rents for $1,000 an hour at Emory University
in Atlanta; a single experiment, which includes at least 12 subjects, can cost

But much is at stake: $117 billion was spent last year on advertising in the
U.S., not to mention $6.8 billion on, among other things, focus groups, opinion
polling and ad and market tracking (says Inside Research newsletter), or the
untold sums invested in 22,000 new consumer packaged goods per year.

As companies continue to learn about how our brains work, they will try to
stimulate areas involved in preferences, purchasing decisions, even aspirations.
Using MRI and other technology, DaimlerChrysler’s research center in Ulm is
studying the brains of drivers as they interact with cars. Some of that work
is to design navigational and warning devices for a safer vehicle. Some is driven
by the pure marketing goal of seeing how drivers’ brains respond to specific
images of autos. Daimler knows, for example, that when people look at the front
of a sports car, a part of the brain that responds to faces--in the back of
the brain where the cerebrum touches the cerebellum--comes alive. This may happen
because the headlights are eyelike. Could the Mini Cooper be such a success
partly because its "face" reminds some people of a friendly cartoon

You don’t need a Ph.D. to put the more mundane aspects of psychomarketing to
work. Market Connections International, a small firm in Montclair, N.J., pitches
"environment-conditioned marketing" to such clients as Colgate-Palmolive,
Kraft Foods and Unilever Group. It distributes product samples to vacationers
to create a mental association between the product and having fun. "If
you introduce a product to people on vacation when they are in a good mood,
and they see that in a store later--bang!--that comes back to them the way the
bell worked with Pavlov’s dogs," says Bailey, the professor at George Washington.

Memory plays a critical role in product choice. In a recent shopping study
conducted by the Open University in Milton Keynes, U.K. and the London Business
School, scientists found that when shoppers are asked to make a choice among
common and closely related items in a grocery-store-like setting, the areas
of the brain involved in memory light up like a July 4th nighttime sky. When
buyers choose a brand they really care about, neural activity suggests that
they are making an emotional choice based on past experience, says Steven P.R.
Rose, a professor of biology and director of brain and behavior research at
the university. The study was funded by a supermarket and three other companies
Rose won’t name.

Companies of all types, among them Kellogg and Procter & Gamble, are more
interested than ever in probing emotions. The cereal maker recently hired cognitive
psychologist Angela Fratianne Weltman to explore women’s conflicting feelings
about food. Result: Instead of pitching Special K simply as a low-fat breakfast
food, Kellogg is featuring average women caught between polar passions for doughnuts
and great-looking legs. P&G has looked into the question of whether consumers
harbor secret feelings for, of all things, toilet paper (see box, p. 70). Loopy
or no, the assumptions are born out of brain research. Neurologist Antonio Damasio,
a professor at the University of Iowa College of Medicine, suggests in his book
Descartes’ Error that emotion is critical to effective thinking and decision
making. That may explain why offers like 99-cent hamburgers and 0% financing
on cars--which appeal strictly to cold common sense--sometimes backfire.

It’s not just our own emotions that play a part. Gregory S. Berns, a psychiatrist
at Emory, is using brain imaging to demonstrate the effects of peer pressure
on individual perception, with the idea of explaining the development of fads,
from investment trends to the popularity of Burberry plaids and belly button
rings. "There is probably some reward or kick in conforming to a group,"
says Berns, who believes most buying decisions are driven by the subconscious.

Berns recently put 30 subjects into MRI machines, where he asked them to compare
54 pairs of abstract three-dimensional images and decide if they were alike
or different. Throughout the 75-minute test participants were shown responses
given by four other subjects, while the MRI machine snapped 1,000 brain images.

This reporter lay down as a guinea pig. While in the scanner she was shown
responses of four other subjects to the pairs of objects before seeing them
herself, then performed the mental rotation required to evaluate the images.
Lemminglike, she usually went along with the majority view, even when it was
wrong. Her brain scan shows why: a change in perceptual processing. By measuring
relative degrees of activation in the parietal lobe, an area involved in integrating
visual images, and in the prefrontal cortex, where decision making takes place,
Berns says, he could determine that the group changed what the reporter perceived.

This experiment is one of a series of studies in the growing field of neuroeconomics,
which investigates how people calculate risks and rewards. It is being funded
by James Richards, a wealthy Atlantan who says he wants to understand the role
of investor emotions in the purchase and sale of securities. The research could
ultimately show that the brains of repeatedly successful investors subconsciously
detect patterns before others notice them. Certain products elicit a similar
physiological kick, tripping the noodle’s reward circuitry. A DaimlerChrysler
study in Ulm showed pictures of 66 different cars--22 sports cars, 22 sedans
and 22 small cars--to a dozen men, with an average age of 31, as they lay in
a scanner. Far more than the other models, sports cars excited areas of the
brain associated with reward and reinforcement. Among the sports cars that generated
the strongest brain responses: the Ferrari 360 Modena, the BMW Z8 and the upcoming
Mercedes SLR.

It’s not just that sports cars have a more pleasing shape, says Walter, the
psychiatrist with the University Clinic of Ulm who was involved in the study.
They trumpet the driver’s wealth and social dominance. "A sports car is
like a peacock’s tail," says Walter, a Honda driver. "Why should a
female peacock choose a mate with a very huge tail? Because if you are strong
and successful as an animal, you can afford to invest energy in such a useless
thing." In other words, as people have known since our Paleolithic forebears
carved the first fertility goddesses, sex sells.

Soda has an interesting effect on our heads, too. A century after Coca-Cola
took cocaine out of its flagship beverage, neuroscientists are learning that
soft drinks still work like the illicit drug--as well as like fat, salt, sugar--on
our brains. P. Read Montague, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine
in Houston, has demonstrated that subjects’ brains register a preference for
Coke or Pepsi that correlates with the product they choose in blind taste tests.
(His study is not funded by the cola giants.) The brain of "Subject P"
on the monitor in the Human Neuroimaging Lab, for instance, shows he is a Pepsi
lover. After he got 35 alternating, but unidentified, squirts of Pepsi and Coca-Cola
through a pacifierlike device while he was in a scanner, blood flooded areas
of his brain involved in reward and decision making, but primarily after doses
of Pepsi. In the neural taste test of 40 subjects, Montague found that kind
of response less powerful with Coke.

So why does Coke outsell Pepsi? It has to do with the power of branding. Researchers
are starting to decode the neural signature for brand preference. Justine Meaux,
a neuroscientist at the privately held BrightHouse Institute for Thought Sciences
in Atlanta, says the medial prefrontal cortex is active when people behold images
of things to which they are extremely attached.In a recent BrightHouse Institute
study, 30 subjects were put in MRI scanners and viewed images of products, people
and activities--rock climbing, President Bush, BMWs and the National Enquirer,
among them. "Preference has measurable correlates in the brain; you can
see it," says Meaux, whose company charges on average $250,000 for such
a study.

If companies can calibrate changes in preferences over time, it may help them
engineer more durable brand loyalty. "This stuff is objectively measurable,
and there are differences we can use to help guide our decisions in how we market
to people," Meaux says. "We can see how we can change our behavior
so someone will want to align with us."

Orwellian? Don’t worry about it, says Baylor’s Montague: "Marketers are
already in your underwear drawer." These worries have been around forever.
In 1957 Vance Packard’s sensationalist bestseller The Hidden Persuaders suggested
that consumers might be susceptible to "subthreshold" stimulation,
such as odors and sounds, that "are just out of the range of conscious
awareness." In time the panic over subliminal advertising subsided. But
now, sighs Harvard’s Zaltman, "There are people who think we can insert
ideas into people’s thinking." Not so, he says. His brain research, which
has attracted business from companies like Coca-Cola, Hallmark and Johnson &
Johnson, is aimed at understanding consumer motivation.

Outside of places like North Korea, brainwashing doesn’t hold much commercial
appeal. But insights into decision making and emotions are ripe for exploitation.
Take the prefrontal cortex, an area that plays a key role in levelheaded decision
making and long-term goals. It takes years to develop and then starts to lose
some of its swagger when we’re in our late 50s. That means kids under 12 and
older people are more susceptible to urges that come from the amygdala, the
emotional hot button in our heads. It responds to threats, emotional communication
and sexual imagery--some of the stuff we see or hear in ads and other marketing
ploys. The cookies on the low shelf in the grocery store are aimed at the 5-year-old’s
amygdala; an investment scam is aimed at the amygdala of a retiree. "By
understanding the development of the prefrontal cortex, companies can market
things in different ways," says Jordan Grafman, chief of the Cognitive
Neuroscience Section of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders &
Stroke at the National Institutes of Health. "There may be certain combinations
of pitches they can use to appeal to the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. Or,
if they know the age range of people watching a TV show, they can change a commercial
to target them in different ways."

The rational response to the injection of brain waves into Madison Avenue is
that it will neither revolutionize marketing nor make us consumer slaves. It
will, rather, yield incremental benefits. "The human brain is the most
complicated thing in the universe," says John Van Horn, a research associate
professor in psychology and brain sciences at Dartmouth College. "It would
be arrogant to say we could stick someone in a machine and understand everything."


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