I wrote this piece a couple of months ago; it ran in NY Press this week:
Reading the Consumer Mind
The age of neuromarketing has dawned.
By now, most of us in the appropriately concerned corners have heard at least something about Emory University’s neuromarketing research center, the BrightHouse Institute for Thought Sciences. The latest innovation in a never-ending quest to decode consumer behaviors, the institute uses Emory University Hospital’s Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) equipment to scan the brains of human subjects on behalf of corporate clients such as Coca-Cola, K-mart and Home Depot.
Of course, this goes against the grain for any of us still old enough, or conscious enough, to recognize the difference between marketing and culture. We are already living in a world where the colors of wallpaper, the textures of carpet and the scents pumped through ventilation systems are concocted to alter our mood, change our gait and make us bring more items to the checkout line. Our children recognize McDonald’s and Nike logos before they can read, and our teens are suffering from more advertising-related psychological diseases every year–from diabetes and anorexia to attention deficit disorder and alcoholism.
So, yes, the thought of a once-respected university surrendering its MRI equipment, psychiatrists and addiction experts to an advertising agency in order for them to mine deep into our pre-conscious neural patterns and speak directly to our reptilian brains is disconcerting, to say the least. It represents both the decline of American academic integrity and the rather unlimited reach of marketing into the most private realms of human thought and emotion. If this stuff works, the bottom line of the corporate balance sheet could very well become the arbiter of reality–or at least the way we perceive it.
Therein lies my concern with this line of thought: Does this stuff work? As an analyst of the persuasion business, I have always been less impressed by new marketing technologies than I am by the ways in which they are sold. Just as much effort goes into rationalizing the process of choosing a new color for a cola can as that which goes into actually picking the color. The process is the product. For in their relentless effort to get into the mind of the consumer and to compete for attention in an increasingly crowded media space, corporations will do and pay pretty much anything to gain an edge. They race from one advertising agency to another as each promises a yet more direct avenue toward the emotional control knob at the center of human decision-making. Touting a product has nothing to do with it. No one advertises about “brand attributes” anymore. This is the age of for loftier concepts such as “brand relationship” and “brand experience.” Today, marketing takes place inside our heads.
The simple craft of describing what a product does and taking some nice pictures of it has been replaced by the voodoo of emotional logic and cognitive imprinting. Of course, the more mysterious a marketing strategy, the more that can be charged for it, and the longer before the client figures out it’s just the same old thing–advertising–with a new three-ring binder of market research or scientific studies backing it up.
That’s why, oddly enough, the current spate of protest against Emory University’s pathetic sell-out of psychiatry to the highest bidder actually aids BrightHouse in its efforts to gain some credibility for its as-yet unproven research methodology. (Does it really take a brain scan to prove that an adolescent boy might respond sexually to Britney Spears? Or that the taste of candy corn reminds someone of Halloween?) Ralph Nader’s advertising watchdog group, Commercial Alert (commercialalert.org), sent a letter to the government’s Office for Human Research Protections requesting an investigation of the BrightHouse Institute on public health grounds. The letter certainly makes sense, and any effort to curtail the reach of marketers into our lives and the lives of our children should be supported.
What bothers me, though, is that such protests seem to take BrightHouse’s specious claims at face value. The underlying assumption is that neuromarketing will actually work–or that it will work better than simply playing an ad in front of a thousand kids and seeing whether it makes them cry, “I want that!”
Commercial Alert’s letter is quick to cite Forbes magazine, which has called neuromarketing the pursuit of “a buy button inside the skull.” Indeed, in a 2002 press release, BrightHouse claimed it would use science “to identify patterns of brain activity that reveal how a consumer is actually evaluating a product, object or advertisement…to help marketers better create products and services and to design more effective marketing campaigns.”
BrightHouse has since adjusted its website, adding an ethics section that completely contradicts the press release by claiming the institute won’t use its technologies “to help companies modify the physical properties of products, design advertising campaigns, or determine likes and dislikes for ads/products.”
The point here is not whether BrightHouse researchers will apply their technologies to packaging or ad campaigns. (Of course they will; they’re an advertising agency.) BrightHouse’s real victory here has been to sell the underlying assumption that its “NeurostrategiesTM” is such a powerful tool to begin with. The protest, and their reaction, has allowed them to behave as though they had the next weapon of mass destruction in their possession. This may prove to have been the biggest marketing coup of all.
A decade or so from now, I suspect we will regard neuromarketing researchers and their techniques the way we regard phrenologists or blood-letters today. And we’ll realize that the only people who ended up being hypnotized by their wares were the daft corporate executives who paid for them.