Head Games | Neuromarketing Applies The Power of MRI To Study Our Reaction to Ads
Part 1 of 3 articles
As you drive home from work, billboards assail your eyes touting the newest products and services, while the radio bombards your ears with yet more advertising messages. Even the car you are tailgating has the dealer’s name plastered on it. You get home, turn on the television and sure enough, more commercial messages invade your world, as you sort through the junk mail looking for something other than another credit card come-on. The marketing monster is everywhere, and it may have a new trick up its sleeve disguised as the scientific research behind neuromarketing.
Neuromarketing is the collaboration between neuroscientists and marketers that uses imaging diagnostics such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) or Quantified Electroencephalography (QEEE) to equate brain activity with buying behavior. Some say this is a natural progression of medical innovation in the modern-day era, while others argue that this is a privacy invasion of the most acute kind.
Equating Neuronal Activity to Stimuli
Through the use of MRI or QEEE, the frequency, location and timing of neuronal activity can be measured in response to various stimuli such as scents, colors, images, and sounds. Newer research also indicates increased activity also associated with brand recognition. The identification of activity responses is assisting neuroscientists and marketers in understanding how consumers make purchasing decisions.
Gary Zaltman first developed the concept of using magnetic resonance imaging to study consumer behavior at Harvard University in the 1990s. He is currently working on a method called Zmet which stands for Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technology, a patented technology that utilizes pictures to detect unconscious thought.
In 2001, the neuroscience wing at Atlanta's Emory University became the hub of neuromarketing research as Dr. Clint Kilts and Dr. Justine Meaux created the Brighthouse Neurostrategies Group, the first neuromarketing company. Currently there are over 90 neuromarketing consultancies serving many major corporations such as Coca Cola, General Motors, Home Depot, General Mills, Proctor and Gamble, Eastman Kodak, Bank of America, and Nestlé.
From Purchasing to Politics
Neuromarketing has been sold to companies as the next "giant leap" forward in identifying consumer purchasing behavior. For example, a study that Daimler-Chrysler conducted found that images of sports cars elicited responses from the reward center of the brain, the same area that shows increased activity when drugs or alcohol are consumed. Brain mapping is also being studied to determine how people react to political information. The University of California conducted a study in which the subjects were shown pictures of candidates. Their reactions to the photographs were found to be emotionally tied to the subject’s party affiliation. However after viewing political commercials, subjects responded in a more bipartisan fashion. Photographs were then redisplayed and in addition to emotional reactions, activity was stimulated in the portion of the brain responsible for rationalization. The conclusion was that subjects were formulating arguments against the political ads for the candidate of the opposing party.
Are commercial and political applications of brain mapping appropriate?
The very use of MRIs for any reason is considered a medical procedure and all medical procedures carry an element of risk. Although MRI has been proved safe, it carries certain risks that need to be taken very seriously. The number of MRIs needed to quantify consumer behavior would only expose people to these risks unnecessarily.
Ethical & Medical Safety Issues
Many consumer advocacy groups, as well as some neuroscientists and psychologists believe the information obtained through MRIs can be used to spread more effective political propaganda and manipulate consumers into buying items that can be harmful. But the application of this information is of great concern to consumer advocacy groups and medical experts. Donald Kennedy, the editor of Science, in an article published in the Lancet titled, "Neuromarketing-Beyond the Branding," indicated he is very concerned that brain imaging will be used to infringe on personal privacy. Psychologists worry about the adverse effects such neuromarketing applications will have on people with buying disorders, other compulsive disorders, and vulnerable groups such as children.
On the other hand, neuromarketers argue that by mapping the brain, they can use the information to more effectively provide consumers with what they want. In the United States $6 billion to $8 billion was spent in 2002 on focus groups, opinion polls, and other market assessment tools. Brain mapping provides unbiased information, where current surveys and opinion polls can be misleading due to less than truthful answers. Companies can save a tremendous amount of money by understanding what rings true with the consumers and predicting buying behavior.
Is There Really a "Buying Button"?
The collaboration of neuroscience with more traditional qualitative methods will increase bottom-line growth and advertising efficacy. Advocates for neuromarketing argue that there is no "buying button" in the brain and that just because activity is noted; it doesn't mean they know how to apply that information. Thus, they have an argument for a new branch of marketing called "academic marketing," which is the understanding, explanation, and prediction of behaviors in individuals, groups, or organizations relevant to markets.
Neuromarketing will continue to provide ethical challenges to society as more diverse applications of medical diagnostics are being explored. Many companies are attracted to the idea of being able to understand and predict how and why a consumer chooses to buy a product. Consumer groups believe that by empowering companies with this knowledge, it can lead to invasion of privacy and consumer manipulation.
It is inconclusive whether the identification of activity in various parts of the brain can truly help unlock the mysteries of human behavior; however, the possibility that it can is both frightening and troublesome. Consumer advocacy groups such as Consumer Alert have been lobbying Congress to pass laws to restrict or abolish this practice. The controversial issues will not be solved in the short term and bear continued monitoring. Neuromarketing, for good or ill, appears to be the wave of the future for the marketing monster.
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April 07: The Science of Neuromarketing: Pros & Cons
May 07: What Is the Future of Neuromarketing?
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