Mind control or market research?
How companies in the future are going to make sure we buy their crap — neuromarketing. It has already started. From the Globe and Mail’s Report On Business:
As long as anyone can remember, marketers have been dying to get inside our heads. What if they really could?
Globe and Mail Update Published on Friday, Oct. 31, 2008 7:00AM EDT Last updated on Tuesday, Mar. 31, 2009 9:03PM EDT
They were so certain they had a winner. In the early 1980s, Coca-Cola spent $4 million conducting nearly 200,000 taste tests and interviews in an attempt to gauge consumer reaction to a sweeter formulation of its century-old soft drink. The data was unequivocal: Consumers preferred the new formula 8% more than Pepsi and an astonishing 20% more than the original Coca-Cola recipe. But none of that would matter. People simply didn’t want New Coke, and the resulting product quickly became the greatest marketing disaster of all time. Company president Donald Keogh summed it up thusly: “All the time and money and skill poured into consumer research on the new Coca-Cola could not measure or reveal the deep and abiding emotional attachment to the original Coca-Cola felt by so many people.”
That emotional attachment we feel toward certain products and brands is something marketers are dying to understand. They’re forever trying to get inside our heads, and they’ve recently turned to neuroscience for help. Researchers dabbling in “neuromarketing” make use of technology like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to delve into our minds like never before. It works like this: By measuring blood flow at more than 100,000 locations in the brain and watching the output on an fMRI scanner, scientists can get a pretty good idea of how your brain is processing information. Just last year, a team from MIT, Stanford and Carnegie Mellon made a real breakthrough when they were able to correctly predict which combinations of products and prices would get their subjects to buy a product. All they had to do was watch a group of neurons in the forebrain called the nucleus accumbens (the same portion of the brain that gets turned on when we anticipate a financial gain) and wait for them to light up on the scanner.
A few companies had already been experimenting with this technology. In 2002, scientists working for DaimlerChrysler found that fMRIs could give them a better understanding of how men reacted to cars. In one study, subjects were presented with images of car grilles, and a part of their brains called the fusiform face area (the portion of the temporal lobe that allows us to recognize faces) was triggered. It was later hypothesized that one of the reasons BMW’s Mini Cooper had been selling so well was that, at least subconsciously, it had an “adorable face.” Furthermore, when drivers were shown pictures of high-performance cars, particularly the Ferrari 360 Modena and the BMW Z8, the areas of the brain associated with concepts of wealth and social dominance were excited. No focus group or survey could ever pick up such a pure and unguarded emotional response.
Martin Lindstrom has spent most of the last 20 years travelling the globe, helping steer the course of such brands as Disney, Pepsi, McDonald’s and American Express. According to him, the problem with traditional market research (that is, surveys) is that it relies on people being honest and accurate in their answers. Why would people lie? Any number of reasons. They may be attempting to appear more affluent, cultured or educated than they really are. They may be trying to please or impress the researcher by giving what they believe to be a “correct” answer, or, quite possibly, they are simply unable to articulate how they really feel about a product.
“Surveys and focus groups force people to pass everything they think and feel through a rational verbalization filter,” says Lindstrom. “Neuromarketing taps into the 85% of our mind that is unconscious. Try asking someone: Why do you love your wife? Give me three bullet-point answers. It’s ridiculous. Yet that is exactly what we’re doing when we ask people why they love their iPod.”
In 2004, Lindstrom directed the largest neuromarketing study ever conducted. The project lasted three years and involved the work of 200 researchers, 10 professors, and over 2,000 subjects in the U.S., England, Germany, Japan and China who volunteered to have their brains scanned. Lindstrom outlines the results of this study in his book, Buyology, released earlier this month. One of the most fascinating chapters details an experiment that underscores just how powerful some brands have become. A group of people who deem themselves devout were shown a series of religious symbols as well as a number of consumer products, ranging from pints of Guinness to Harley-Davidson motorcycles. The products of particularly powerful brands, researchers noted, lit up the same areas of the brain—just as strongly—as the images of crosses, rosary beads, Mother Teresa, the Virgin Mary and the Bible.
The chances that a machine could help a company make a product so good and so satisfying that using it becomes a quasi-religious experience are slim. Still, there are some who feel that having this much insight into the way we think is simply too much power to put in the hands of marketers. CommercialAlert, the consumer protection organization founded by Ralph Nader, calls neuromarketing “Orwellian” and claims that it will lead to ever more marketing-related diseases such as obesity, diabetes and alcoholism. They find it offensive that one of the world’s greatest medical inventions is being used to sell goods, rather than help people.
Martin Lindstrom is unwilling to cede the moral high ground. In his book’s introduction, he writes, “The more companies know about our subconscious needs and desires, the more useful, meaningful products they will bring to market. …Imagine more products that earn more money and satisfy customers at the same time. That’s a nice combo.” Neuromarketing isn’t mind control; it’s market research, and it remains to be seen whether it can help companies avoid disasters like New Coke in the future. After all, the functional MRI is merely a descriptive technology. It’s like the difference between a weather map and a climate model: The map can tell you where it’s raining, but not why it rains. And that’s not going to change any time soon. The brain is still a far more complicated machine than we understand.
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