In the 1950s, marketing consultant and huckster James Vicary introduced the world to the idea that words, sounds and images hidden in advertising could compel people to buy. Two decades later he’d admitted that his research was a hoax, but the idea of subliminal messages still struck fear into the hearts of consumers. More than 200 scientific studies have been conducted that show there’s no evidence that subliminal ads motivate consumers, but now there’s a new monster in the closet: neuromarketing.
Coined in 1990 by two Harvard psychiatrists, the term “neuromarketing” refers to a science that has its roots in Plato’s theory that human behavior is driven by both emotion and reasoning. Over the years, neuromarketing has gained momentum and research has backed up its efficacy, so much so that a specific technique was patented in the late ‘90s by Harvard professor Jerry Zaltman. The resultant, Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET) is a prominent marketing tool for companies like Coca-Cola, Nestle and General Motors, and its use continues to gain popularity. Online knowledge site Tech.FAQ notes that, “While neuromarketing is a relatively new technique, it has been widely implemented in recent years and nearly every marketing agency and medium-large company in the world now uses it.”
Did you catch that?
“…nearly every marketing agency and medium-large company in the world now uses it.”
More alarming than the widespread usage of neuromarketing is the fact that this technique’s influence extends beyond simple sales of products and services. Even political parties are tapping into neuromarketing to design campaigns that tip the scales in favor of the “right” candidate by appealing specifically to swing voters.
That companies and other entities are resorting to this kind of manipulation should come as no surprise to most. Advertising has always ranked poorly when it comes to perceived ethical standards. In a 2011 survey on honesty and ethics in professions, Gallup pollsters found that advertisers ranked third from the bottom in a list of 22 professions, just above members of Congress and car salesmen. Although the Federal Trade Commission states that advertising must be non-deceptive, fair and supported by evidence to back up expressed or implied claims, it has done little to prevent companies from gaining an unfair advantage over consumers by using technologies that literally “hack your brain.”
This is Your Brain
Part of what makes neuromarketing so frightening is its ability to get inside your head—literally. Typical neuromarketing studies delve inside the brain using high-tech resources like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), steady state topography (SST), electroencephalography (EEG) and facial coding and biometrics to look at how the physical brain reacts to, and is changed by, advertising images, sounds and other stimuli.
The brain is segmented into three parts: the new brain (logic, research); the middle or limbic brain (gut feeling, intuition, emotion); and the old, or reptilian, brain (instinct). Science shows that 95% of our decisions are made subconsciously by the reptilian and limbic brain areas. These are the areas targeted by neuromarketing; the subconscious centers that can only be accessed or understood through brain imaging and biometrics, since even we are unaware of the processes firing through our synapses at the subconscious level. Case in point: one block of research showed that more than half the people involved in a Coke vs. Pepsi taste test said they preferred Pepsi, (it produced a stronger response in the brain’s ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area that produces feelings of reward), yet many exhibited a strong bias towards Coke in the marketplace, which had to do with feelings toward the brand.
A study commissioned by PepsiCo for its Frito-Lay division which used neuromarketing determined that although women were snacking more frequently than men, they weren’t choosing Frito-Lay snacks. Research showed that the female brain’s larger anterior cingulate cortex caused women to be more prone to feelings of guilt (presumably brought on by snacking on some Fritos). To mitigate this and encourage women to snack, Frito-Lay is changing packaging from shiny to matte bags and showing pictures of “healthy” ingredients such as spices on the packages; both of which were proven through brain imaging to prevent triggering of emotional guilt responses.
While many companies like Frito-Lay have the budget ($30 to $100 million dollars) to deeply explore neuromarketing, even smaller companies are jumping on the bandwagon using relatively inexpensive techniques such as biometrics to reduce testing costs.
This is Your Brain Online
Online marketing is on the upswing, with online retail sales predicted to reach $327 billion by 2016. With more consumers using computer technology to search, research and purchase products, more companies are turning to online advertising and using neuromarketing to stack the odds in their favor.
Recently, the Center for Digital Democracy reported that Facebook is using a neuromarketing company, NeuroFocus, to get inside consumer’s minds and fine-tune their advertising. NeuroFocus’ study centered on measuring brain response and the “degree to which messages and conceptual associations are strengthened by an experience.” They targeted the conscious and subconscious reactions of consumers who watched an ad on television versus viewing it on a webpage. Researchers were able to show higher levels of brain engagement for ads presented in a social media environment versus other venues.
Yahoo’s $100 million dollar branding campaign featured a neuromarketer-tested and approved online spot to drive more users to its search engine. Several ads were shown to consumers who were wearing EEG devices to determine which version best stimulated the limbic and front cortices of their brains—the areas associated with emotional thought and memory functions.
As if that isn’t enough, even PayPal gets into the game by using brainwave research to determine that customers prefer speed and convenience to safety and security when checking out online. Their resultant campaign pitches PayPal as “fast, easy, secure” rather than the other way around.
One of my favorite examples of online neuromarketing involves Microsoft’s neuromarketing-enhanced Xbox LIVE ads. Test subjects had their brain activity, heart rate, blink rate, skin temperature and breath rate measured while being shown several campaigns over a variety of media. Brain scans showed that consumers who played an Xbox LIVE game with interactive billboards were able to recall brands 90% more often, making advertising of video games a lucrative choice for online advertisers.
Thanks to multiple online venues, advertisers have more access to their intended prey, especially when it comes to reaching kids and teens. A 2012 report by the Federal Trade Commission finds that food and beverage marketers are taking a “Four Screens” approach to advertising; that is, tracking consumers across computer, smartphone, tablet and television, ensuring that potential customers can be reached, no matter what device they are working on. This across-the-board saturation leaves online consumers little respite from bombardment by neurally-tweaked advertising.
Brainy or Bogus?
Yet, some people disagree that neuromarketing tips the scales in favor of the seller. In fact, some neuroscientists dismiss current studies as seriously flawed. One leading authority in neuroscience, Martha Farah, Ph.D., noted that images of increased brain activity present after viewing a stimulus could be easily be interpreted as a positive rather than a negative reaction. If this were the case, an MRI or EEG result would be as ambiguous as any focus group finding. This disconnect between results and interpretation is borne out by a study that ranked Super Bowl ads by the amount of “neurological engagement” observed in test subjects that viewed them. For the 2008 Super Bowl, GoDaddy’s ad was low on the brain activity score, but it was a touchdown for their marketing campaign—the ad produced a staggering 1.5 million hits on their site.
Others outright support the use of neuromarketing and some go so far as to consider it a boon to consumers. Roger Dooley, author of the blog Neuromarketing, says in his new book, Brainfluence, “If neuromarketing techniques are used properly, we’ll have better ads, better products and happier customers…Would consumers really be better off if companies annoyed them with ineffective yet costly ad campaigns?” I, for one, would prefer a straight-up, non-manipulative advertisement that allows me to exercise my own powers of choice based on logical review of the product’s benefits. If the ad is annoying to me, perhaps I don’t really need the product or service on offer.
There is still much we don’t understand about the way the human brain functions. Neuroscience has a long way to go before significant progress is made in mapping the processes of the brain. And the jury is still out on the effectiveness of current neuromarketing efforts. However, the potential exists for access to, and control of, subconscious decision-making that casts a decidedly sinister pall on this new addition to the marketing arsenal and takes the term “Buyer Beware” to a whole new level.
Nikki B. Williams is a freelance writer based in Houston, TX. She has written for a variety of clients from the Huffington Post and D.C.-based political action committees to Celtic jewelry designers in Ireland. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or through her website nikkibeewilliams.com.