The Journal of
Cognitive Liberties

This article is from Vol. 1, Issue No. 3 pages 69-71 (Fall 2000)
All rights reserved worldwide.  ISSN: 1527-3946



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This Is Your Brain on Ads:

The Future of Advertising Starts Here

By Alisa Smith

From NASA to the Teletubby generation: that’s the abbreviated history of the electroencephalogram. The EEG began as a brainwave-reading machine that told scientists which astronauts could remain the most focused and alert. Today, the headset technology is licensed to a Pennsylvania company that tests whether or not ads get a fix on your brain.

“Conceptually, we are turning the respondent’s headset into a camcorder into their mind,” says David Hunter, president and CEO of Capita Research Group.

Investment in the advertising research industry doubled in the 1990s, yet the core testing method remained the same: pay up to 400 people to watch ads and fill in a questionnaire. To many advertisers, the Engagement Testing System offered by Capita Research represents the holy grail of objective market research. People can’t fudge their brainwave activity.

Dr. Anthony Pratkanis, a University of California social psychologist and author of Age of Propaganda, says measures like EEGs are “notoriously unreliable,” but warns that any high-tech advance in the advertisers’ arsenal is a blow to the consumer.

“They are professional persuaders with massive war chests,” he says. “We don’t have a lot of resources to defend ourselves. It’s not a fair match.”

A glance into the future is even more worrisome, adds Dr. Alien Kanner, a professor at the Wright Institute, a graduate school of psychology in Berkeley, California. Tapping into our core emotions, advertisers could put consumers into a dreamlike “alpha” state. “It’s close to hypnosis,” says Kanner. Marketing research could eventually pinpoint images and sounds that activate deep human impulses such as anxiety, anger, or sexual excitement. Over time, says Kanner, advertisers will have to combat human adaptability. “They’ll have to go to further and further lengths to shock you.”

Even some advertising executives are leery of this potential mental trespass. A spokesperson for MTV, quoted in American Demographics magazine, winced at the likely public reaction if EEG ad-testing was used on children and youth. “It would be a PR nightmare,” he said. “It’s too Big Brother.”

Hunter dismisses his critics, noting that Capita can only test those who are willing to participate. “It’s just another market research technique,” he says. “What’s more invasive: asking you how much money you make and how you spend it, or my putting a headset on you and seeing when you’re paying the most attention? It’s how you look at life.”

Capita has provided services to some big hitters, including ten of the 100 largest companies on the Fortune 300 list and five of the world’s largest drug manufacturers. Already, engagement testing is poised to influence much more than ad design. In a study commissioned by STARCOM, the largest TV ad-time buyer in the US, Capita discovered that some shows with high Nielsen ratings weren’t exactly riveting viewers to the set—or to the programs’ commercial breaks. Based on engagement testing, TV producers could launch a renewed race to snag viewer attention and make ads an increasingly unavoidable compulsion.

More gripping plot lines on Friends? It doesn’t stop there. “Of course we’re not allowed to say who,” says Hunter, “but we’ve had a couple of federal politicians as clients.”

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Reprinted with permission from Adbusters, No. 31 (August/September 2000). For more information about Adbusters, visit