of the Buy Button
(c) 09.01.03 Forbes.com
What makes some products irresistible? Neuroscientists are racing to find
the answer to that question--and to pass it along to consumer marketers.
It could be a scene
from a new age salon. Eight young women squirm under electrode-studded caps
in a dark, small room in Greenwich, England. "Relax," intones Nicholas
Coomans, a market researcher. "Imagine you are sitting on your own sofa for
20 minutes of TV." Coomans turns off the light and slips into an adjacent
room so he can watch as the subjects take in a taped sitcom and six
commercials. Coomans and his colleague, cognitive neuroscientist Joćo Neves,
aren't watching for facial expressions, body language or verbal feedback.
They're interested only in their subjects' brains, which are abuzz with
electrical activity, recorded as rows of squiggly lines crawling across the
screen of a Dell laptop. The electroencephalograph picks up cognitive
functions in 12 different regions of the brain, showing memory recall and
the level of attention paid to visual and aural stimuli.
Are the subjects really
focusing on pitches for Kit Kat candy, Smirnoff vodka and the Volkswagen
Passat? Are they forming emotional attachments to these products? Unlike the
people answering questionnaires or participating in focus groups, brain
waves don't lie. An activity spike in the left prefrontal cortex--an
"approach" response to the image of a Kit Kat chocolate bar--would suggest
the subject is attracted to the brand image or message. When the right
prefrontal cortex gets jumpy, it indicates, in this experiment, instinctive
revulsion to an obnoxious, tongue-wagging character who pops up in a
commercial for Carling beer.
When researchers zero
in on electrical activity in yet another area, they can tell which parts of
commercial messages, if any, are encoded in the experimental subjects'
long-term memories. "People who are more likely to purchase a product show
significantly higher memory encoding than those who are less likely,"
explains Richard Silberstein, a neuroscientist with the Brain Sciences
Institute at the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia.
He developed the headgear used in Greenwich.
Using machines that
detect brain tumors and strokes to determine whether pink satin underthings
will outsell black ones or if people really like pickles on their
hamburgers--could this yield practical results? Some big marketers are
sufficiently intrigued to put research money into the idea. Among the
companies looking into whether brain signals can supplement or replace
traditional tests of consumer response to commercials are General Motors,
Ford of Europe, and Camelot, the U.K.'s national lottery operator.
Advertising, for the
moment, remains more art than science. Brand marketers have tried appealing
to people's emotions as well as to their sense of reason. They've tried
guilt, anxiety, envy, fear, humor and suspense. There's no guarantee that
they'll hit the mark by decoding synaptic firings and measuring fluctuations
in blood flow.
But they can try.
Neuroscientists say that by peering inside your head they can tell whether
you identify more strongly with J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter, say, than with
J.R.R. Tolkien's Frodo. A beverage company can choose one new juice or soda
over another based on which flavor trips the brain's reward circuitry. It's
conceivable that movies and TV programs will be vetted before their release
by brain-imaging companies. A "fascinating" possibility, says William
Raduchel, until recently the chief technology officer at AOL Time Warner,
who explored using MRI technology for that purpose last fall. "It's a little
like mind reading," says Henrik Walter, a neurologist and psychiatrist with
the University Clinic of Ulm, Germany, where he conducts brain-imaging work
All this is moving
toward an elusive goal: to find a "buy button" inside the skull and to test
products, packaging and advertising for their ability to activate it. So
far, researchers are figuring out which brain states facilitate product
recognition and choice; they're related to primal urges like those for
power, sex and sustenance. As for brand loyalty, it turns out that memory
and emotion play a big role. "In the not-too-distant future, firms will be
able to tell precisely if an advertising campaign or product redesign
triggers the brain activity and neurochemical release associated with memory
and action," predicts James Bailey, professor of organizational behavior at
George Washington University.
Folks have been trying
for decades to decode what motivates shoppers. Economist and social critic
Thorstein Veblen took a crack at it in The Theory of the Leisure Class,
the 1899 classic that wryly posited the theory of "conspicuous consumption,"
his phrase for keeping up with the Joneses. In the 1930s George Gallup began
polling people and peddling his findings to companies desperate for
information about buyers. Twenty years later big ad agencies were tapping
psychologists such as Ernest Dichter, founder of the Institute for
Motivational Research. Some of Dichter's preachings--among them: that
marketers should offer absolution to consumers who indulge in guilty
pleasures like smoking cigarettes or eating sweets--seem laughably simple
If the fanciful quest
hasn't changed, the tools of the trade have. There's eye tracking to monitor
what people look at on a page or screen and for how long. Measuring galvanic
skin response--changes in the electrical resistance, that is--can gauge
emotional involvement. "So much of what drives our behavior happens without
our awareness, how can business learn what people don't know they know? This
is where these tools fit in," says Gerald Zaltman, a professor emeritus at
the Harvard Business School and author of How Customers Think.
No tool gets more use
than the Zamboni-size functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, which
takes neural eavesdropping to a new level. The $2.5 million device uses a
large magnet to induce radio signals from chemicals in the brain and thereby
monitor blood flow. It differs from the MRI of medical tests in making
moving images rather than still ones. Thinking during tasks shows up in
color in cross-sectional images, recorded as the subject lies with his head
inside the scanner.
There are downsides.
One is that the coffinlike confines spook claustrophobes, possibly
distorting their reactions to stimuli. The other is that brain imaging is
expensive. The moving-image MRI rents for $1,000 an hour at Emory University
in Atlanta; a single experiment, which includes at least 12 subjects, can
But much is at stake:
$117 billion was spent last year on advertising in the U.S., not to mention
$6.8 billion on, among other things, focus groups, opinion polling and ad
and market tracking (says Inside Research newsletter), or the untold
sums invested in 22,000 new consumer packaged goods per year.
As companies continue
to learn about how our brains work, they will try to stimulate areas
involved in preferences, purchasing decisions, even aspirations. Using MRI
and other technology, DaimlerChrysler's research center in Ulm is studying
the brains of drivers as they interact with cars. Some of that work is to
design navigational and warning devices for a safer vehicle. Some is driven
by the pure marketing goal of seeing how drivers' brains respond to specific
images of autos. Daimler knows, for example, that when people look at the
front of a sports car, a part of the brain that responds to faces--in the
back of the brain where the cerebrum touches the cerebellum--comes alive.
This may happen because the headlights are eyelike. Could the Mini Cooper be
such a success partly because its "face" reminds some people of a friendly
You don't need a Ph.D.
to put the more mundane aspects of psychomarketing to work. Market
Connections International, a small firm in Montclair, N.J., pitches
"environment-conditioned marketing" to such clients as Colgate-Palmolive,
Kraft Foods and Unilever Group. It distributes product samples to
vacationers to create a mental association between the product and having
fun. "If you introduce a product to people on vacation when they are in a
good mood, and they see that in a store later--bang!--that comes back to
them the way the bell worked with Pavlov's dogs," says Bailey, the professor
at George Washington.
Memory plays a critical
role in product choice. In a recent shopping study conducted by the Open
University in Milton Keynes, U.K. and the London Business School, scientists
found that when shoppers are asked to make a choice among common and closely
related items in a grocery-store-like setting, the areas of the brain
involved in memory light up like a July 4th nighttime sky. When buyers
choose a brand they really care about, neural activity suggests that they
are making an emotional choice based on past experience, says Steven P.R.
Rose, a professor of biology and director of brain and behavior research at
the university. The study was funded by a supermarket and three other
companies Rose won't name.
Companies of all types,
among them Kellogg and Procter & Gamble, are more interested than ever in
probing emotions. The cereal maker recently hired cognitive psychologist
Angela Fratianne Weltman to explore women's conflicting feelings about food.
Result: Instead of pitching Special K simply as a low-fat breakfast food,
Kellogg is featuring average women caught between polar passions for
doughnuts and great-looking legs. P&G has looked into the question of
whether consumers harbor secret feelings for, of all things, toilet paper
(see box, p. 70). Loopy or no, the assumptions are born out of brain
research. Neurologist Antonio Damasio, a professor at the University of Iowa
College of Medicine, suggests in his book Descartes' Error that
emotion is critical to effective thinking and decision making. That may
explain why offers like 99-cent hamburgers and 0% financing on cars--which
appeal strictly to cold common sense--sometimes backfire.
It's not just our own
emotions that play a part. Gregory S. Berns, a psychiatrist at Emory, is
using brain imaging to demonstrate the effects of peer pressure on
individual perception, with the idea of explaining the development of fads,
from investment trends to the popularity of Burberry plaids and belly button
rings. "There is probably some reward or kick in conforming to a group,"
says Berns, who believes most buying decisions are driven by the
Berns recently put 30
subjects into MRI machines, where he asked them to compare 54 pairs of
abstract three-dimensional images and decide if they were alike or
different. Throughout the 75-minute test participants were shown responses
given by four other subjects, while the MRI machine snapped 1,000 brain
This reporter lay down
as a guinea pig. While in the scanner she was shown responses of four other
subjects to the pairs of objects before seeing them herself, then performed
the mental rotation required to evaluate the images. Lemminglike, she
usually went along with the majority view, even when it was wrong. Her brain
scan shows why: a change in perceptual processing. By measuring relative
degrees of activation in the parietal lobe, an area involved in integrating
visual images, and in the prefrontal cortex, where decision making takes
place, Berns says, he could determine that the group changed what the
This experiment is one
of a series of studies in the growing field of neuroeconomics, which
investigates how people calculate risks and rewards. It is being funded by
James Richards, a wealthy Atlantan who says he wants to understand the role
of investor emotions in the purchase and sale of securities. The research
could ultimately show that the brains of repeatedly successful investors
subconsciously detect patterns before others notice them.
Certain products elicit
a similar physiological kick, tripping the noodle's reward circuitry. A
DaimlerChrysler study in Ulm showed pictures of 66 different cars--22 sports
cars, 22 sedans and 22 small cars--to a dozen men, with an average age of
31, as they lay in a scanner. Far more than the other models, sports cars
excited areas of the brain associated with reward and reinforcement. Among
the sports cars that generated the strongest brain responses: the Ferrari
360 Modena, the BMW Z8 and the upcoming Mercedes SLR.
It's not just that
sports cars have a more pleasing shape, says Walter, the psychiatrist with
the University Clinic of Ulm who was involved in the study. They trumpet the
driver's wealth and social dominance. "A sports car is like a peacock's
tail," says Walter, a Honda driver. "Why should a female peacock choose a
mate with a very huge tail? Because if you are strong and successful as an
animal, you can afford to invest energy in such a useless thing." In other
words, as people have known since our Paleolithic forebears carved the first
fertility goddesses, sex sells.
Soda has an interesting
effect on our heads, too. A century after Coca-Cola took cocaine out of its
flagship beverage, neuroscientists are learning that soft drinks still work
like the illicit drug--as well as like fat, salt, sugar--on our brains. P.
Read Montague, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston,
has demonstrated that subjects' brains register a preference for Coke or
Pepsi that correlates with the product they choose in blind taste tests.
(His study is not funded by the cola giants.) The brain of "Subject P" on
the monitor in the Human Neuroimaging Lab, for instance, shows he is a Pepsi
lover. After he got 35 alternating, but unidentified, squirts of Pepsi and
Coca-Cola through a pacifierlike device while he was in a scanner, blood
flooded areas of his brain involved in reward and decision making, but
primarily after doses of Pepsi. In the neural taste test of 40 subjects,
Montague found that kind of response less powerful with Coke.
So why does Coke
outsell Pepsi? It has to do with the power of branding. Researchers are
starting to decode the neural signature for brand preference. Justine Meaux,
a neuroscientist at the privately held BrightHouse Institute for Thought
Sciences in Atlanta, says the medial prefrontal cortex is active when people
behold images of things to which they are extremely attached. In a recent
BrightHouse Institute study, 30 subjects were put in MRI scanners and viewed
images of products, people and activities--rock climbing, President Bush,
BMWs and the National Enquirer, among them. "Preference has
measurable correlates in the brain; you can see it," says Meaux, whose
company charges on average $250,000 for such a study.
If companies can
calibrate changes in preferences over time, it may help them engineer more
durable brand loyalty. "This stuff is objectively measurable, and there are
differences we can use to help guide our decisions in how we market to
people," Meaux says. "We can see how we can change our behavior so someone
will want to align with us."
Orwellian? Don't worry
about it, says Baylor's Montague: "Marketers are already in your underwear
drawer." These worries have been around forever. In 1957 Vance Packard's
sensationalist bestseller The Hidden Persuaders suggested that
consumers might be susceptible to "subthreshold" stimulation, such as odors
and sounds, that "are just out of the range of conscious awareness." In time
the panic over subliminal advertising subsided. But now, sighs Harvard's
Zaltman, "There are people who think we can insert ideas into people's
thinking." Not so, he says. His brain research, which has attracted business
from companies like Coca-Cola, Hallmark and Johnson & Johnson, is aimed at
understanding consumer motivation.
Outside of places like
North Korea, brainwashing doesn't hold much commercial appeal. But insights
into decision making and emotions are ripe for exploitation. Take the
prefrontal cortex, an area that plays a key role in levelheaded decision
making and long-term goals. It takes years to develop and then starts to
lose some of its swagger when we're in our late 50s. That means kids under
12 and older people are more susceptible to urges that come from the
amygdala, the emotional hot button in our heads. It responds to threats,
emotional communication and sexual imagery--some of the stuff we see or hear
in ads and other marketing ploys. The cookies on the low shelf in the
grocery store are aimed at the 5-year-old's amygdala; an investment scam is
aimed at the amygdala of a retiree. "By understanding the development of the
prefrontal cortex, companies can market things in different ways," says
Jordan Grafman, chief of the Cognitive Neuroscience Section of the National
Institute of Neurological Disorders & Stroke at the National Institutes of
Health. "There may be certain combinations of pitches they can use to appeal
to the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. Or, if they know the age range of
people watching a TV show, they can change a commercial to target them in
The rational response
to the injection of brain waves into Madison Avenue is that it will neither
revolutionize marketing nor make us consumer slaves. It will, rather, yield
incremental benefits. "The human brain is the most complicated thing in the
universe," says John Van Horn, a research associate professor in psychology
and brain sciences at Dartmouth College. "It would be arrogant to say we
could stick someone in a machine and understand everything."
Index: Cognitive Liberty &