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Minding Your Business: Neuromarketing’s Search for the Brain’s Buy Button

Think you’re consciously choosing what you buy? Find out how companies are getting inside your brain to build better ads and why shopping is more primitive than we thought. 

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A 35-year-old man lies in a long plastic tube. He’s watching a breakfast -cereal commercial, reflected in a mirror above him. Nearby, in a specially shielded room, white-coated technicians peer into his mind.

The tube is an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machine, which, every two seconds, scans blood-flow activity in the man’s brain. The results are fed into a bank of monitors. One screen displays the commercial; on another is a picture of his brain in which blooms of colour flare up and fade away. Areas of grey matter that process fear, interest or memory appear as dim spots of yellow or, depending on how emotionally engaged the man is, blobs of brighter orange.

But suddenly one area explodes in a glorious burst of scarlet. To those watching, that red is the colour of money: It means the man saw something he liked, stimulating a part of his brain that could later influence a decision to buy the brand of cereal. This part of the ad worked. But 20 seconds later, trouble looms.

“We could see that at the 46-second mark, the part of the brain that processes disgust lit up, and 14 seconds after that, the subject started to lose interest,” says Diana Lucaci, founder and CEO of Mississauga neuromarketing research firm True Impact. “The person in the machine might not be aware of it, but we know exactly what he was looking at when everything fell apart, and can recommend ways our client can fix it.”

True Impact, which opened shop in 2008, belongs to a new and controversial wing of cognitive science that has joined forces with an industry hungry for fresh insights into how humans feel, think and react: advertisers. Lucaci is the Canadian chair of the Neuromarketing Science and Business Association (NMSBA), which was founded this year and claims nearly 140 members worldwide-all of whom are competing for a piece of the annual $30 billion spent on market research. Only a decade old, neuromarketing is still in its infancy. But excitement over its techniques is spreading. Not only have ad agencies in the United States and abroad started to specialize in neurotesting, but big media companies are either investing in brainwave researchers or-as in the case of consumer-statistics giant Nielsen’s purchase of NeuroFocus-buying them outright.

True Impact is one of only two neuromarketing companies in Canada (Montreal-based Carte Blanche is the other). Renting fMRIs from Toronto-area hospitals during off-hours, True Impact acts as a technical consultant to retailers, manufacturers and media firms. It does not make commercials. The term “neuromarketing”-coined in 2002 by Dutch marketing professor Ale Smidts-can be confusing because, like many in the industry, the True Impact neuroscientists aren’t marketers; they just help them. Staff record real-time reactions to everything from videos, radio ads and posters to websites and fragrances. Then it’s up to the real marketers to apply the findings. Lucaci has an edge: Not only does she have a neuroscience degree, she was also a marketing director with Bell Canada. She draws on her communications training when counselling clients who represent brands as diverse as Rogers, Pizza Pizza, Royal LePage and Axe.

“I tell them, ‘We’re seeing a drop in attention there,’ or ‘They’re not looking where you want them to look, so let’s change this and that,'” she says. (Contractual obligations prevent her from discussing specific campaigns.) “In a nutshell, I suggest ways clients can eliminate negative emotions, boredom or disinterest so that consumers are fully engaged.” 

Next: Why yellow chip bags make women feel
guilty – and what this means for marketers.

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According to Lucaci, our purchasing decisions are rarely vetted by the neocortex, the area controlling higher-level activities such as logic and language. Instead, she argues those choices are fed to us by the more primitive section-dubbed the “reptilian brain”-which swirls with primal feelings such as lust, fear and self-preservation. Am I attracted or repelled? Do I fight or flee? “These reactions happen quickly,” says Lucaci. “It’s an evolutionary holdover. The conscious mind is too slow.”

To tune in to these subconscious reactions, True Impact employs a range of medical equipment: electroencephalograms (EEGs), MRIs, heart-rate monitors. “Neuroscience has discovered certain reward pathways,” says Lucaci. “If those areas light up, we know the person is experiencing a feeling of ‘I want.’ That level of ‘want’ is what we measure.”

Neuromarketers claim their measurements-collectively dubbed “biometrics”-are more cost-effective, efficient and precise than what can be supplied by surveys and focus groups. The old-school methods often consist of putting hundreds of people in a lab to answer written or oral questions about, say, the four brands of potato chips they’re eating. Despite the controls used to keep results accurate and unbiased-selecting participants with similar histories or organizing many groups to get a larger sample of opinions-such testing is inherently flawed: Participants may not know or refuse to tell the truth for social or cultural reasons. Their answers run a gauntlet of ego, misapprehension and a need to please.

But why ask questions at all, say neuromarketers, when you can bypass the conscious mind and go straight to the one thing that never lies: the central nervous system. The costs-most of which go towards equipment and data analysis-are on par with focus-group studies, varying from $30,000 to $100,000. However, neuromarketers require a much smaller sample size, often no more than 20 subjects. Best of all, argues Lucaci, the results are 100 percent objective. “A traditional focus group would never have picked up the feelings we just saw,” she says, referring to the breakfast-cereal fMRI test. “That’s important because people buy based on emotion. Our gut reactions are in our brains.”

One experiment that helped bust the myth of the so-called rational shopper was conducted by neuromarketers hired by Frito-Lay in 2009. The snack-food brand wanted to make a more aggressive pitch to women, who, according to research at the time, tended to avoid Frito-Lay products. Neuromarketers discovered the company’s shiny, yellow chip bags lit up the anterior cingulate cortex in female consumers-an area associated with guilt. This inspired the company to retest the subjects, this time with packaging toned down to a matte, beige finish and adorned with healthier images, such as photos of potatoes. Guilt vanished from the scans. Frito-Lay used these findings to roll out a line of redesigned, guilt-free options that included single-serving packages and baked snacks. Following the campaign, profits shot up eight percent.

“There’s always some rational evaluation when we shop: price, variety, ingredients,” Lucaci says. “But most of the time, it starts as a feeling.” Emotions, she explains, are the sum total of our experience with a brand. Essentially, they represent shortcuts that allow us to make choices we feel good about, without expending too much effort in the process. “Retailers couldn’t stay in business without impulse purchases,” says Lucaci. “As Frito-Lay showed, neuromarketing can’t make you rush out and buy stuff you don’t want. All it can do is help craft a more compelling message.” 

Next: Why Coke trumps Pepsi regardless of its actual taste. 

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But by revealing how emotions steer our purchasing habits, neuromarketers have also exposed how much of our decision making happens on autopilot. Many fear this information is ripe for exploitation. In one compelling experiment, brand expert Martin Lindstrom found that when 600 women were shown the blue Tiffany box, their heart rates jumped an average of 20 percent-even though it was a plain, empty box without a logo. Why? As Lindstrom later argued in his 2008 book Buyology, women now associate the signature robin’s-egg colour with engagement, marriage and children. 

Lucaci insists neuromarketers can’t embed ideas or control thoughts. “There’s no ‘buy button’ in the brain,” she points out. But it’s hard to avoid the feeling that companies are spending lots of money, and using increasingly sophisticated tools, to find one.

Neuromarketing first entered the public eye in 2004 with the Pepsi Challenge fMRI study, when 67 volunteers were scanned during a blind taste test of Pepsi and Coca-Cola. Unaware of which brand they were drinking, about half the volunteers preferred Pepsi, which was echoed by activity in their ventromedial prefrontal cortices, the brain’s reward centres. But when tested again, this time knowing which soda was which, almost three quarters of the subjects chose Coke. Why? Brain scans showed that when subjects knew they were drinking Coke, their hippocampi, midbrains and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices (the areas responsible for memory and emotion) lit up. Nostalgia for Coke seemed to trump preference for Pepsi. Marketers always knew Coke sold better, but now they knew why.

Or did they? “The trouble with real-world studies,” says Roger Dooley, author of the 2011 book Brainfluence, “is that they don’t prove cause and effect.” He argues that just because a brain area is active doesn’t mean the function associated with that area is engaged. Different kinds of activation have been associated with different functions; the amygdala alone plays a hand in anger, happiness and sexual excitement.

“What the industry needs,” Dooley argues, “are academic studies that show the predictive power of certain techniques.” But such studies are scarce. Maybe two dozen have been reported, and only a handful have published details in peer-reviewed journals. The rest belong to the companies loath to release their findings to competitors.

One recent study, however, seemed to go a long way towards proving neuromarketing’s main tenet: We’re unreliable narrators of our own desires. Last year, U.S. researchers put 31 heavy smokers-all eager to quit-into fMRI machines, then asked them to rate the effectiveness of three antismoking TV campaigns aimed at getting viewers to call a national “quitline.” Campaign A included an ad about a man relearning to drink coffee without a cigarette. Campaign B featured a spot where a woman imagines flinging herself out of a window to snatch a lit cigarette dropped on the sidewalk. Campaign C used finger puppets-in one case, a puppet represented a wife berating her chain-smoking husband. The majority of volunteers thought B would be the most effective, followed by A. Most didn’t like C at all. Industry experts didn’t think C would work either. But scans of the smokers’ medial prefrontal cortices, the areas indicating positive responses to persuasive messages, placed C first. When the ads were broadcast, C was the biggest motivator, boosting the number of calls by a factor of 30.

“The failure of the self-reported data suggests that hidden in the brain are clues not only to how individuals might behave in the future, but how millions are likely to respond after watching an ad,” says Matthew Lieberman, professor in psychology at the University of California, and one of the authors of the study. “We can’t access that wisdom consciously, but scientists may be able to get at it.” 

Next: How Campbell’s redesigned its soup cans
and why the new labels worked. 

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Innerscope Research, Inc. is one of few U.S. companies to share data about many of its neuromarketing studies. It sees its research as a complement to the academic side of neuroscience, and to that end, the Boston-based firm uses portable biometric methods, which make it possible to study consumers in natural settings such as supermarkets.

In 2008, the Campbell Soup Company had seen a steady decline in sales. Marketing surveys had recommended ads that had very little effect when launched, so instead, Campbell commissioned Innerscope to gauge consumer reactions to its condensed soup, a category that contributes $1 billion to the company’s annual sales. Using lightweight, wireless biometric belts that wrap around the lower rib cage, Innerscope followed 40 people of different ages for several days. Coupled with eye-tracking glasses, the belts’ sensors captured changes in heart rate, breathing, skin temperature, sweat and even interest-indicating motions, such as leaning forward. All of these signals were transmitted by Bluetooth to Innerscope’s lab, where billions of data points were crunched using algorithms and then aggregated into an index of emotional engagement.

Innerscope found the majority of participants expressed warm feelings about Campbell’s soup when interviewed at home: The product brought back memories of green-bean casserole at Thanksgiving dinners, or warm meals after playing in the snow for hours. However, those feelings were replaced with stress at the store: stress from shopping, from time pressure or from trying to locate a favourite soup on the shelves. There was a disconnect between how people felt about the brand and what they did-or didn’t do-when shopping.

As a result of this research, Campbell rolled out a major label redesign in 2010 that tried to bring those out-of-store emotions into the grocery aisle by removing unfavourable emotional triggers (a wall of indistinguishable red-and-white soup cans; message-loaded labels; a prominent, distracting spoon) and building in things that evoked positive emotions (images of comforting steam).


Was it successful? Philip McGee, a Campbell spokesperson, will only confirm the company was happy with results. He says Campbell continues to rely heavily on biometric testing for in-store merchandising. “It really helped bring objectivity to the creative-development process and produce more effective advertising.”

The accuracy of biometric testing can also be seen in the work of Sands Research. The El Paso, Texas, company is a leader in the use of EEGs, which involves placing 68 electrodes on a person’s scalp to record the electrical charges of neuron activity and thus track attention levels. Sands’s engineers have rejigged the EEG for commercial use, creating a wireless headset that resembles a shower cap. This device has demonstrated remarkable predictive powers.

For the last five years, the company has done annual analyses of commercials that run during the Super Bowl by collecting signals transmitted by 50 volunteers wearing EEG caps. “In the first 800 milliseconds, the brain will decide, ‘Am I interested in this?,'” says Sands president and CEO Ron Wright. “A good commercial will spike and stay in a plateau until the end.” Among the spots Sands tested during the 2011 game was Volkswagen’s “Darth Vader” ad, in which a boy dressed as Vader tries to start his father’s new Passat using “the Force” and is shocked when the car bursts to life. We then see his dad at the kitchen window, smiling as he fingers the automatic starter. According to Sands, the ad went off the biometric charts, but traditional Q&A methods used by USA Today rated it much lower. Sands got it right: Volkswagen’s post-ad sales in the United States surged by 26 percent. 

Next: How our brains act inside stores, and whether
getting inside our heads is even ethical.

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That same year, Sands partnered with a marketing company to investigate the effectiveness of store displays. Over 2,000 interviews were combined with data gathered from over 200 shoppers, each of whom was outfitted with an EEG cap and eye-tracking goggles that doubled as cameras. The eye trackers worked in units of 200-millisecond gazes, with three such gazes counting as a “view”-indicating that the shopper was actively considering a product.

“The biggest surprise? Seventy-six percent of decisions are made inside the store,” says Wright. “Oh, sure, people come in with a general idea and even have lists, but a huge amount of impulse buying goes on in the aisles.”

Displays, Sands learned, are impulse optimizers, redirecting shoppers to areas of the store they didn’t plan on entering. (End caps-located on the end of aisles-accounted for 44 percent of “display-to-shelf conversions.”) By identifying display types, in-store locations and product categories that set off the highest traffic of impulse buying, retailers aim to create the ideal conditions for a wallet-opening experience, again and again and again.

Should our subconscious be for sale? Every neuromarketer is aware of the question, and the concern behind it. “No one in my industry enjoys talking to the media,” admits Lucaci. “They’re afraid of negative press.” To counter these concerns, the NMSBA is finalizing a code of ethics, and the U.S. Advertising Research Foundation has tried to push companies to be more forthcoming about their research.

For Duncan Stewart, director of research at consulting firm Deloitte Canada, the fear of an impossible-to-resist “Franken-ad” stems from confusion over the science. “It’s not that the technology can’t do impressive things, but neuromarketers aren’t brainwashers,” he says.

Decades before biometrics arrived, marketers were early adopters of ethnography, in which researchers shadow a target group. Eye tracking was seized upon as soon as it was invented in 1948, and, by 1960, pupillometers-which measured pupil size as a sign of excitement-were all the rage. “Some people say neuromarketing tampers with things we shouldn’t,” says Stewart. “But mad men have been using all kinds of tricks to make us go out and buy things that, if we stopped to think about it, we wouldn’t. MRIs are one more tool.”

Lucaci agrees. “When focus groups first came out, that was considered invasive,” she adds. But Lucaci believes shoppers can learn a great deal from her research. Four years ago, she says, auto manufacturer DaimlerChrysler hired neuromarketers to flash pictures of different cars to a dozen men inside an fMRI. The sports cars consistently tripwired the brain’s reward-oriented region-the part also stimulated by drugs, alcohol and sex. So even before logic could weigh in, emotion had already made its decision. “There’s no point keeping your head in the sand while major brands market to your subconscious,” says Lucaci. “You should know this exists.”