The race to discover our “buy button” has turned into a blood sport.
Neuromarketing is the study of the brain’s responses to advertising using a functional MRI machine that tracks the blood flow to different parts of the brain.
And it is determined to prove that emotion, not reason, is the primary factor behind our decisions to buy.
It has discovered that we liked Budweiser’s “Whassup!” ad because we liked the Whassup! guy.
The Miller Light ad that compared itself to another beer confused us — we forgot which one we were supposed to buy.
And Heineken’s The Weasel spot backfired because we had a visceral negative response to its sneaky hero, who pretended to bring Heineken to a party.
All advertisers want now is to figure out is how to duplicate the emotion stirred by Whassup!
The goal is nothing short of mind control.
Gary Ruskin of Commercial Alert, a US non-profit organization founded by Ralph Nader that argues for strict regulations on advertising, has waged a campaign against neuromarketing, lobbying Congress and the American Psychological Association and threatening lawsuits against practitioners.
Although the discipline is in its infancy, Ruskin warns it could eventually lead to complete corporate manipulation of consumers — or citizens in general, with governments using brain scans to create more effective propaganda.
Neuromarketing has claimed a few areas of our brain already.
Stanford researchers using MRI technology found that pain avoidance is the primary emotion motivating our buying decisions.
They demonstrated that separate parts of the brain are activated when people are confronted with financial gains versus financial losses, and that the pleasure of purchasing is overwhelmingly sacrificed to avoid the pain of paying for something pricey.
In a study of men’s reactions to cars, Daimler-Chrysler found that sportier models activate the brain’s reward centres — the same areas that light up in response to alcohol and drugs — as well as activating the area that recognizes faces, which may explain why some men have cars named Betty.
And in the realm of political advertising, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that Republicans and Democrats react differently to campaign ads showing images of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Those ads cause the part of the brain associated with fear to light up more vividly in Democrats than in Republicans.
Not surprisingly, similar research is being done on movie trailers.
Neuromarketing was born when Read Montague, a neuroscientist at Baylor University, published in the October 2004 issue of Neuron the results of a study which got to the bottom of the longstanding marketing paradox of the 1980s Pepsi Challenge.
Without knowing what they were drinking, about half his subjects said they preferred Pepsi. But once Montague told them which samples were Coke, three-fourths said Coke tasted better, and their brain activity changed too.
Coke “lit up” the medial prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that controls higher thinking.
Montague figures the brain was recalling images and ideas from commercials, and the brand was overriding the actual quality of the product, since Coke and Pepsi are basically the same drink.
Thus, he has discovered that Coke sells more because it has better ads, but not why the ads are so successful.
Which means neuromarketing still has a long way to go.
There is other mind-controlling research we should be wary of.
Consumers are being hooked up to electrodes to measure skin changes, heart rates as well as imperceptible facial twitches.
When the possibility of buying something first occurs to a person, the visual cortex, in the back of the head, springs into action.
A split second later, the mind begins to turn the product over, as though it were looking at it from all sides, which triggers memory circuits in the left inferotemporal cortex — a twitch just above and forward of the left ear.
Finally, when a product registers as a “strongly preferred choice” — Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! — the twitch switches to the right parietal cortex, above and slightly behind the right ear.
But I think we should be the most alarmed when we start sensing advertisements are speaking directly to us, an imposed schizophrenia that could be right around the corner.
American Technology, based in San Diego, California, has invented hypersonic sound, a technology that lets you direct sound through a narrow column not unlike a beam of light that “shines” sound on a very specific area.
The high-tech company has signed a major deal with In-Store Broadcasting Network, an electronic retail media company that provides audio systems to US supermarket giants Safeway and Walgreens, among others, to imbed the technology in flat-screen panels at grocery store check-out counters.
The hypersonic sound would be used to beam commercials at individual store customers — ads from above that speak only to you.
An organization is asking Emory University to stop a controversial research project or risk losing millions in federal funding.
Commercial Alert, made the request in a December 1 letter to Emory’s president, James Wagner.
Commercial Alert objects to Emory allowing BrightHouse, an Atlanta marketing consultancy headed by veteran advertising executive Joey Reiman, to use the university’s neuroscience facilities for “neuromarketing” research.
Commercial Alert has been successful in other efforts to limit corporate advertising and marketing.
The organization helped stop the Smithsonian Institution from selling corporate sponsorships for exhibits, the city of Boston from selling the naming rights to its subway system, and AOL Time Warner Inc. from selling advertising on its CNN Student News daily broadcasts to about 18,000 schools.
The group also led a fight to ban marketing and distribution of junk food in schools.
Juliann Fraser is a writer living in Whitehorse.