Close-Up: Live issue - Is neuroscience making a difference?

Agencies are finding brain mapping a useful tool in understanding consumers, Caroline Lovell says.

A giant functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) brain scanner machine won't give you miraculous powers, but it could possibly reveal what every brand has ever strived to discover: the key to understanding how humans unconsciously see their products.

Many clients, such as McDonald's, Procter & Gamble, GMTV and Johnson & Johnson, have already dabbled in neuroscience, but in adland, the brain explorers are few and far between.

Two weeks ago, the first neuromarketing conference was held in Warwick to look at how neuroscience techniques could enhance market research practices. Not surprisingly, only a couple of people from adland attended. But as the world's first applied neuroimaging centre, based at the University of Warwick, gets ready to open its doors, momentum is picking up.

The brain is made up of networks of neurons. When these cell clusters are stimulated, they use more energy. These active areas light up on fMRI scans, allowing scientists to map emotion and cognition.

Neuroimaging by a fMRI scanner produces a colour-coded image of the brain that predicts behaviour by revealing a person's unconscious feelings about a brand or ad.

With 90-plus neuromarketing agencies worldwide, it is not exactly early days, but the area is still being explored and there is much scepticism, especially within ad circles.

For the advocates, neuroscience is an objective tool, which scientifically demonstrates and quantifies human behaviour. It will have a huge impact on advertising, its supporters say, because it improves our understanding of the brain, how people process information, and it reveals unconscious truths.

According to Gemma Calvert, a professor of Applied Neuroimaging at Warwick University and co-founder of the neuromarketing consultancy Neurosense, neuroscience will save brands money. "It's not a litmus test - it's a damn sight better, in terms of predictability, than other techniques."

In the long term, Robin Wight, the chairman of The Engine Group, thinks neuroscience will transform how we assess marketing. "The marketing industry has failed to get beyond the rational mind model of communication," he says. "We are not rational creatures; we are rationalising creatures. If we are driven by our unconscious decisions, how misled is an ad that focuses on the conscious mind?"

But, for the sceptics, neuroscience does not reveal any huge insights into human behaviour that are not already instinctively known.

Lugging an fMRI machine around isn't exactly that practical, either. And neuroimaging is a lot more expensive than running focus groups. Yet it can be a good new business tool, as PHD Media has found out by introducing "neuroplanning" into its media planning.

Jonathan Fowles, PHD's executive planning director, says clients "love" the neuroplanning tool, because it objectively shows the potential of different media channels to stimulate the brain while factoring in affordability.

The one clear danger with neuroscience is that its findings will be seen as absolute scientific truths, high above scrutiny. And, at worse, it could supersede creativity.

However, it is not yet known whether it will work and whether people will volunteer to let marketers into their heads. If they do, it may just show how worthy brands really are in the eyes of consumers.

- Got a view? E-mail us at campaign@haymarket.com

CREATIVE - Damon Collins, executive creative director, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R

"I love the concept of neuromarketing. However, there are a few tiny weeny issue-ettes that need considering.

"Conventional research is expensive enough. Having to stick every respondent into an MRI scanner at £1,000 a pop might be pushing clients' budgets a little.

"Also, existing qualitative and quantitative methodologies can be criticised for using far from real-life conditions. But squeezing someone into a terrifyingly noisy plastic tube and forcing them to watch an ad is about as far from their sitting room as you can get."

PLANNER - Andy Nairn, executive planning director, Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy

"I don't think it will massively revolutionise what we already know about human behaviour.

"A lot of the companies that will use neuroscience are big companies that have little imagination and hope it will magically provide consumer insights. But it's dangerous when used predicatively. Hooking people up to monitors treats them like laboratory rats.

"People have always looked for the Holy Grail to predict what will make people buy stuff but it has eluded us: selling stuff is an art rather than an absolute science.

"We reject advertising when it's pumped into our living room. Who is going to volunteer for it to be rammed into their brain?"

NEUROSCIENCE EXPERT - Graham Page, executive vice-president, Global Solutions, Millward Brown

"Neuroscience will round up the picture rather than completely change the story. It has the potential to improve the diagnostics of advertising performance and tell us more about the ideas that the ad is generating. When it is relevant, neuroscience should lead to better decision-making.

"It is very easy for people to get carried away with the hype around it. Scientists will be clear on what they are looking at, whereas commercial neuromarketing agencies will say to clients that they are measuring unconscious thoughts. There is a risk that some practitioners at the more extreme end of the claims will give the whole of neuroscience a bad press."

MEDIA PLANNER - Jonathan Fowles, executive planning director, PHD Media

"Neuroscience is an absolutely intrinsic part of our planning process. Frankly, it sometimes confirms what we instinctively know, but I still think there's a value.

"We thought there was something missing in the media planning process in that when you think of the rationale for a media channel selection, a lot of it is about research, coverage and statistics. But it doesn't take into account the ability of a channel to stimulate and influence our brains.

"It sounds a bit Machiavellian and slightly scary but it is a totally sensible way to look at things.

"The danger is to turn it into too much of a science. People still need to think creatively about solving problems."

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