November 28th, 2003
A Probe Inside the Mind of the Shopper
By Jerome Burne
What does go through your mind as your eyes flick across the supermarket shelves
before you reach out for one packet of soap powder rather than another? What
is your brain doing as you leaf through a catalogue, pondering this jacket or
those strappy boots?
Marketing managers spend millions every year on focus groups in an attempt
to probe consumers’ decision-making processes.
Now a technique known as neuromarketing promises to provide snapshot images
of brain activity at crucial moments of retail choice. Scientists have been
putting volunteers into MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanners to find out
what goes on in their brains when they look at pictures of consumer goods.
Their findings appear to offer new opportunities for manipulating consumers.
But the idea that scientists can equip companies with sinister powers to influence
the public has been a recurring fear and an unfulfilled promise since the 1950s.
Until recently MRI has been used only in clinics - for diagnosing strokes or
discovering tumours - or for pure research, such as identifying brain regions
linked with movement or emotion. Now laboratory insights are being matched to
the needs of marketing managers. Two neuromarketing centres, Brighthouse Institute
and the Mind Marketing Laboratory, have recently opened in the US.
MRI scanners were used this year for an investigation of amodern marketing
conundrum: why Coca-Cola outsells Pepsi, even though blind tasting frequently
shows more people prefer the taste of Pepsi. When Read Montague of Baylor College
of Medicine in Houston, Texas, re-created the Pepsi Challenge blind tasting
campaign of years ago, he found those who preferred Pepsi showed a five times
stronger response in one of the brain’s reward centres (the ventral putamen)
than those who liked Coke. Then he ran the scans again but this time the volunteers
knew which drink they were tasting.
"The result was remarkable," says Dr Montague. Not only did the subjects
nearly all say they preferred Coke but another area at the front of the brain,
the medial prefrontal cortex, which is linked with thinking and judging, lit
up as well as the ventral putamen. "This showed that subjects were allowing
their memories and other impressions of the drink - in other words its brand
image - to shape their preferences." A strong brand, it seems, can override
our taste buds.
The conclusion was that if you find what stimulates the medial prefrontal cortex
you may have the basis of a successful advertising campaign.
Dr Montague’s work was picked up by the Bright-house Institute of Thought Sciences,
based in the neuroscience wing at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia.
"This (the medial prefrontal cortex) is the area that is linked to our
sense of self," says Clint Kilts, scientific director of Brighthouse. It
is the area that used to be knocked out in a lobotomy: damage here can cause
drastic personality change. "If it fires when you see a particular product,"
he says, "you are more likely to buy because that product clicks with your
self-image." The Brighthouse team has found that when volunteers say they
"truly love" something, the medial prefrontal cortex lights up on
The scans can also give other indications of what is going on in your mind.
When the team see an area called the somatosensory cortex fire up, for instance,
they know the subject is imagining using an object. This region, which controls
our physical movements, is also active when we are thinking about a movement.
But until the medial prefrontal cortex lights up, we have not fully identified
with the product.
Such findings could open the way for companies to discover whether their products
are triggering this vital response. "They show that preferences have measurable
correlates in the brain; you can see it," says Justine Meaux, a neuroscientist
at Brighthouse. "We can use this difference to guide our decisions about
how we market to people."
Peering into the consumer’s brain in this way is not cheap. Use of an MRI scanner
that generates moving pictures costs about Dollars 1,000 an hour, while a single
experiment involving 12 subjects can cost Dollars 50,000. The fee for a recent
study by Brighthouse, with 30 subjects viewing images ranging from rock climbing
and President George W. Bush to BMWs and the National Enquirer, was Dollars
Against the cost is the argument that insights lead to an advertising advantage
that could be worth millions.
The frontal cortex is the area of the brain that is the last to develop fully
and the first to decline. It is at its peak between about 12 and 50 years of
age. This means very young children and old people are more susceptible to urges
that come from the emotional amygdala.
Although neuromarketing is so far largely a US phenomenon, scientists at the
University of Ulm in Germany recently reported on men asked to rate the attractiveness
of cars. When they looked at pictures of glamour cars such as Porsche and Ferrari,
an MRI scan showed activity in a brain region used for processing faces. This
area has strong links with the main emotional centres.
Other studies, using the more more basic electroencephalogram, which records
electrical activity from the scalp, claim to have found that activity in the
left prefrontal cortex indicates an "approach" response, while one
on the right indicates "revulsion". The EEG has also been used to
explore how well a message is remembered. Richard Silberstein, a neuroscientist
at Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, argues that "the better
you remember a commercial message the more likely you are to buy the product".
Before anyone gets excited or anxious about manipulation and control, some
neuroscientists are expressing scepticism. Chris Frith of the Institute of Neurology
in London, says: "Just because you can see and measure an increased level
of activity in the brain, people feel that is more authoritative than someone
saying what they are thinking or feeling. But we don’t really know enough about
how the brain works as a system to be able to apply this research. It is too
early to say what findings like these mean."
The uncertainty Prof Frith outlines is highlighted by work under way at the
Max Planck Institute in Tubingen in Germany. Researchers there have found that
while MRI scans give accurate information about how much information is coming
into a brain area, they are not so informative about what is being passed on
elsewhere. They may tell only half the story.
But the promise of neuromarketing is alluring and, rightly or wrongly, we may
yet see political focus groups swept away as volunteers are herded into scanners
to see which politicians tickle their medial prefrontal cortexes.