Unscrupulous marketers dream of a ‘buy button’ in consumers’ brains which may be activated through scientific study of the mind. Fear of this brainwashing loomed large when, in 1957, american James Vicary presented his famous experiment on subliminal advertising: during the projection of a movie at the cinema, he claimed to have slipped in several frames, lasting only fractions of a second each, with the slogans “drink Coca-Cola” and “eat popcorn”. They flashed so quickly, he said, that audience members only perceived them unconsciously, but that was apparently enough to drive up sales of both soft drink and snack during the intermission. Years later, Vicary confessed it was a hoax.
We know that subliminal advertising doesn’t work and that there is no ‘buy button’ in the brain, but the fear that advances in psychology and neuroscience may be used to manipulate consumers hasn’t quite been shaken. Today, the focus is on neuromarketing, a collection of techniques which apply knowledge and tools from neuroscience to the art of selling. A neuromarketing study, for instance, may use brain scanners to test consumers’ reactions to a certain brand.
For decades, marketing decisions have been informed by scientific knowledge of the brain—its shortcuts and its biases—in order to make products, commercials and even packaging more attractive to the unconscious mind. Neuromarketing, in its simplest form, is only the natural evolution of this practice, which now incorporates the latest scientific advances. The main novelty is that, nowadays, the study of the brain relies on neurotechnologies, such as magnetic resonance imaging and other techniques designed to probe our decision-making organ.
María López, founder of the neurotechnology company Bitbrain, calls this applied knowledge “theoretical neuromarketing” and warns against the “nonsense” and false promises found in the field. Perfectly sound investigations—say, on attention span or on the stimulation of emotional reactions—are often plucked out of context to support dubious claims billed as fail-safe strategies to sell more.
From knowing the brain to reading the mind
In practice, neuromarketing can be observed in subtle creative decisions informed by evidence of the minds’ inner workings. For example, advertisements with babies in them are universally appealing, but a study made with eye-tracking technology has revealed that they are more effective when the infant looks at the advertised product, because having a baby stare straight into the camera distracts consumers from the ad’s content.
It’s a neat trick, but a far cry from mind control. According to philosopher and neuroethicist Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, “neuroscience will never be a threat to our free will.” In an interview with Harvard Business Review, he said: “All marketing is about influencing people […]. But when neuroscience enters the picture, people worry that they’re not just influenced, they’re forced to do certain things. And though the influence of these techniques will grow as they improve, forcing people to do things is just not on the horizon.”
There is another application of neuromarketing used exclusively in market research which has garnered even greater attention because it attempts to access potential clients’ minds directly, using brainwave monitors. López stresses that this sort of technology is incapable of “extracting thoughts”, and rather focuses on “measuring reactions”.
The most commonly used technique is electroencephalography (EEG), o surface brainwave scanning, but this is usually complemented by readings from skin conductivity sensors, heart-rate monitors and eye-tracking devices. For this sort of market study, a group of volunteers is usually presented with a TV commercial, a logo or any other product which the company wishes to evaluate. Measures are recorded on the consumers’ level of excitement (and whether it is positive or negative), their attention and their predisposal to memorise the content.
With a traditional poll or focus group, researchers can gather the reported opinions and preferences of the study participants regarding their product. Neuromarketing, however, aims to capture the unconscious reaction: a deeper, hidden judgement which also guides shopping decisions. The aim, according to López, is not to catch them out in a lie, or collect information the consumers themselves may wish to hide, since the study participants are usually volunteers who must always give their informed consent and have no reason to be misleading.
Uncovering taboo feelings
However, neuromarketing has already revealed hidden stances from study volunteers who were not completely forthcoming. Frito-Lay Inc., the american manufacturer of snack foods, decided to conduct an EEG reaction study for one of their commercials. In the advertisement, which had been harshly criticised, the protagonist dyed another woman’s laundry orange by filling her washing machine with Cheetos. According to the brainwave readings, volunteers enjoyed the prank, but that’s not what they said in the focus group—they probably didn’t want to seem nasty in front of strangers.
In the face of such revelations, companies must pay close attention to the topics they choose to study, warns marketing professor Steven Stanton (Oakland University, Michigan) in Harvard Business Review: “Consumers may perceive a violation of their right to privacy—particularly when it seems that a company somehow knows more about them and what they want to buy than they know themselves,” he says.
Barring the revelation of shared taboo feelings, the ethical considerations of neuromarketing are not so different from those expected of traditional marketing. After all, common data sources such as social media activity and online shopping history already reveal a great deal of private information to advertisers—occasionally, information unbeknown even to the consumer. It’s in fact unlikely that private information gathered by neuromarketing research will leak, given the rigorous data treatment required in market research studies.
In the end, López stresses, all these sensors produce are measures of physiological processes on a continuous spectrum. These processes happen in the brains of very different people, who may have slept poorly, argued with their partner or been offered a promotion at work on the day of the study. “It’s said that neuromarketing is much more objective than traditional investigation, but that’s only a half-truth: you have the data, a series of graphs with peaks and troughs, but a human has to interpret those data,” she says. “And given the same graphs, one analyst will say one thing, but a different one will say another.”