Media: All About ... Neuromarketing

Can MRI scanners improve advertising effectiveness, Alasdair Reid asks.

TV ads that appear in relevant programme environments are, on average, 24 per cent more likely to generate brain activity in the areas of the brain commonly associated with advertising effectiveness.

How do we know? Because Viacom Brand Solutions, led by the managing director, Nick Bampton, took two dozen people along to the Maudsley Hospital and made them watch telly while their heads were wedged into MRI scanners.

Their brain glow was then measured and interpreted.

There's often a nutty professor aura to this sort of project (and the notion that there are "areas of the brain commonly associated with advertising effectiveness" is not designed to make you feel confident) but it's already becoming a huge business in the US.

This is not entirely surprising given the relatively cheap access to MRI scanner time. Because, since the advent of cinema more than a century ago, all sorts of people have been fascinated by the potential of audio-visual stimuli to change people's behaviour. And the theory has always been that, once the workings of the mind are better understood, you're halfway to the ultimate goal of some level of mind control.

And, of course, we are flirting here with advertising's twilight zone.

In terms of popular mythology, the notion of brainwashing mind control had its heyday during the darkest days of the Cold War.

The supposed threat of brainwashing as a political weapon was a theme of headline writers throughout the Korean and Vietnam wars. It also inspired one of the most curious books on advertising ever written - Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders, published in 1957. This was Cold War paranoia applied to Madison Avenue - and many readers unthinkingly (ironically enough) swallowed its basic premise that brainwashing techniques had been harnessed for commercial ends hook, line and sinker.

And this notion is still with us. Neuromarketing, some pressure groups say, could take the business of marketing and advertising into some very disturbing areas indeed.

1. Most advertising effectiveness research has relied on interrogating consumers to get an understanding about what they recall following exposure to ads and what they consequently think and feel about brands. It is therefore a supremely subjective and impressionistic science.

2. In contrast, more mechanistic real-time forms of analysis have evolved from theories about which parts of the brain are responsible for different functions - for instance, memory and emotion. Data is acquired by plugging your consumer guinea pig into an MRI scanner and observing which parts of the brain respond to different audio-visual stimuli.

3. Neuromarketing was developed at Harvard University in the late 90s by the marketing professor Gerry Zaltman in a series of projects for Fortune 500 corporations. He has now stopped using MRI scans and is believed to be evolving an even more sophisticated model.

4. Leadership in this field is now claimed by BrightHouse Neurostrategies, launched by Clint Kilts and Justine Meaux in 2001. It works out of the Neuroscience Wing at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia.

5. Neuromarketing became a major US media phenomenon in 2003 when Read Montague, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, restaged the classic Pepsi Challenge scenario with respondents wired up. His results proved (he argued) that conscious and subconscious responses are often in conflict when consumers interact with brands.

6. There are now around 90 neuromarketing consultancies in the US and major corporations regularly using their insights include Procter & Gamble, GM, Coca- Cola and Motorola.

7. The leading UK exponent is the Oxford-based Neurosense, which conducted the Viacom Brand Solutions study. It has undertaken projects for many high-profile UK brands and, earlier this year, PHD hired it to undertake some research. This sought to determine the relative impact of different media on different parts of the brain. PHD now factors this data into its planning.

8. BrightHouse plans to host the first worldwide conference on neuromarketing in Atlanta in March 2006.



- Civil liberties groups believe that this is (or could lead to) the ultimate invasion of privacy; and the more vociferous critics of neuromarketing argue that if advertisers learn to tweak the collective cerebral cortex, they'll soon have us all salivating like Pavlov's dogs.

- Others, like America's Centre for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics, are more relaxed. There are those who argue that this is nothing more than a bit of harmless (if very expensive) fun. After all, the scientific establishment remains highly sceptical about the claims of many practitioners in this area. Some would go so far as to suggest that it is no more credible than the 19th-century quack medical "science" of phrenology.


- The advertisers who are sold on neuromarketing techniques tend to be rather uncomfortable talking about it - but a great many are now using these techniques to gain insights into the way consumers interact with brands at all levels, from media advertising to packaging and basic, routine product use.

- But many advertising agencies continue to advise caution. Although neuroscience has been evolving all sorts of colourful theories of how the brain interprets sensory stimuli, they remain just that - theories.

- Many agencies also point out that no-one has yet managed to measure deep brain activity in an unobtrusive manner. The guinea pigs are always conscious of the fact they are being monitored - which distorts their responses.

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