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.”
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.
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.”