now, most of us in the appropriately concerned corners have heard at least
something about Emory University’s neuromarketing research center, the
BrightHouse Institute for
Thought Sciences. The latest innovation in a never-ending quest to
decode consumer behaviors, the institute uses Emory University Hospital’s
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) equipment to scan the brains of human
subjects on behalf of corporate clients such as Coca-Cola, K-mart and Home
course, this goes against the grain for any of us still old enough, or
conscious enough, to recognize the difference between marketing and culture.
We are already living in a world where the colors of wallpaper, the textures
of carpet and the scents pumped through ventilation systems are concocted to
alter our mood, change our gait and make us bring more items to the checkout
line. Our children recognize McDonald’s and Nike logos before they can read,
and our teens are suffering from more advertising-related psychological
diseases every year–from diabetes and anorexia to attention deficit disorder
yes, the thought of a once-respected university surrendering its MRI
equipment, psychiatrists and addiction experts to an advertising agency in
order for them to mine deep into our pre-conscious neural patterns and speak
directly to our reptilian brains is disconcerting, to say the least. It
represents both the decline of American academic integrity and the rather
unlimited reach of marketing into the most private realms of human thought
and emotion. If this stuff works, the bottom line of the corporate balance
sheet could very well become the arbiter of reality–or at least the way we
Therein lies my concern with this line of thought: Does this stuff work? As
an analyst of the persuasion business, I have always been less impressed by
new marketing technologies than I am by the ways in which they are sold.
Just as much effort goes into rationalizing the process of choosing a new
color for a cola can as that which goes into actually picking the color. The
process is the product. For in their relentless effort to get into the mind
of the consumer and to compete for attention in an increasingly crowded
media space, corporations will do and pay pretty much anything to gain an
edge. They race from one advertising agency to another as each promises a
yet more direct avenue toward the emotional control knob at the center of
human decision-making. Touting a product has nothing to do with it. No one
advertises about "brand attributes" anymore. This is the age of for loftier
concepts such as "brand relationship" and "brand experience." Today,
marketing takes place inside our heads.
simple craft of describing what a product does and taking some nice pictures
of it has been replaced by the voodoo of emotional logic and cognitive
imprinting. Of course, the more mysterious a marketing strategy, the more
that can be charged for it, and the longer before the client figures out
it’s just the same old thing–advertising–with a new three-ring binder of
market research or scientific studies backing it up.
why, oddly enough, the current spate of protest against Emory University’s
pathetic sell-out of psychiatry to the highest bidder actually aids
BrightHouse in its efforts to gain some credibility for its as-yet unproven
research methodology. (Does it really take a brain scan to prove that an
adolescent boy might respond sexually to Britney Spears? Or that the taste
of candy corn reminds someone of Halloween?) Ralph Nader’s advertising
watchdog group, Commercial Alert (commercialalert.org),
sent a letter to the government’s Office for Human Research Protections
requesting an investigation of the BrightHouse Institute on public health
grounds. The letter certainly makes sense, and any effort to curtail the
reach of marketers into our lives and the lives of our children should be
bothers me, though, is that such protests seem to take BrightHouse’s
specious claims at face value. The underlying assumption is that
neuromarketing will actually work–or that it will work better than simply
playing an ad in front of a thousand kids and seeing whether it makes them
cry, "I want that!"
Commercial Alert’s letter is quick to cite Forbes magazine, which has
called neuromarketing the pursuit of "a buy button inside the skull."
Indeed, in a 2002 press release, BrightHouse claimed it would use science
"to identify patterns of brain activity that reveal how a consumer is
actually evaluating a product, object or advertisement…to help marketers
better create products and services and to design more effective marketing
BrightHouse has since adjusted its website, adding an ethics section that
completely contradicts the press release by claiming the institute won’t use
its technologies "to help companies modify the physical properties of
products, design advertising campaigns, or determine likes and dislikes for
point here is not whether BrightHouse researchers will apply their
technologies to packaging or ad campaigns. (Of course they will; they’re an
advertising agency.) BrightHouse’s real victory here has been to sell the
underlying assumption that its "NeurostrategiesTM"
is such a powerful tool to begin with. The protest, and their reaction, has
allowed them to behave as though they had the next weapon of mass
destruction in their possession. This may prove to have been the biggest
marketing coup of all.
decade or so from now, I suspect we will regard neuromarketing researchers
and their techniques the way we regard phrenologists or blood-letters today.
And we’ll realize that the only people who ended up being hypnotized by
their wares were the daft corporate executives who paid for them.