When Peter Graser underwent an MRI scan at Emory University, doctors
weren't looking for disease.
Instead, brain researchers flashed images -- Madonna, broccoli, sushi, a
Ford truck, a golden retriever, Bill Clinton, Coca-Cola -- before the
37-year-old Marietta resident's eyes as he lay inside the coffin-like tube
of the magnetic resonance imaging machine.
The scientists discovered a biological clue to what drives consumers:
Whenever Graser and a dozen other study volunteers saw a picture they
particularly liked, their brains showed increased activity in the medial
prefrontal cortex -- an area associated with preference, or sense of self.
On this Super Bowl Sunday, when advertising swells to a fever pitch, the
researchers' conclusion is especially appropos: What really makes us loyal
purchasers is a brand that reflects our self-image, not a product's taste,
size, color or convenience.
The study, funded through the Atlanta consulting firm BrightHouse by an
undisclosed Fortune 500 client, has stirred up controversy about the
emerging -- and some say Orwellian -- field of "neuromarketing." Scientific
tools such as MRI scanners, which allow researchers to peer into the brain
and better understand depression, addiction, autism and schizophrenia,
should not be used by Coca-Cola, McDonald's or Ford to entice people to buy
more of their soda, french fries or sport utility vehicles, critics say.
"It's wrong to use medical technology for marketing and not for healing,"
said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, a Portland,
Ore.-based nonprofit organization that has worked to bar advertising from
schools and other public areas. "We have epidemics of obesity, diabetes,
alcoholism, gambling and smoking -- all tied to marketing. Any increase in
the effectiveness of advertising can be devastating to the public."
Justine Meaux, research director of BrightHouse Neurostrategies Group, a
division of BrightHouse, said neuromarketing helps companies understand
customers' true desires better than the standard marketing approach, focus
"A lot of what motivates our behavior occurs below the level of conscious
awareness," said Meaux, a neuroscientist. "We give [companies] insight into
how to develop relationships with consumers."
Meaux winces at the allegation by some that BrightHouse is searching for
a "buy button" in the brain.
"The brain is not that simple," she said. "It's not like consumers are
going to run out like automatons and buy your product no matter what they
think or feel."
Unease about advertising
Neuromarketing is a commercial offshoot of the burgeoning field of
medical research known as cognitive neuroscience. Researchers are using
souped-up MRI scanners and other brain-imaging machines to uncover
biological explanations for mental illness -- and to elucidate why we hate,
envy, love or cooperate.
BrightHouse and Emory are among a few neuromarketing pioneers. The Mind
of the Market Laboratory at Harvard Business School also has conducted
Read Montague, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, has
applied MRI technology to the "Pepsi Challenge." In his lab, the brains of
test subjects who prefer Pepsi lit up in the region where people process
feelings of reward, such as taste. But Coca-Cola lovers displayed activity
of a higher order -- in the medial prefrontal cortex, the same sector
revealed in the Emory experiment.
Pepsi wins many taste tests, but Coke sells better because people are
subconsciously influenced by Coke's full-of-life image, Montague said.
"Nobody had ever measured the neurocorrelate of it," he said.
He said he is organizing a national neuromarketing conference at Baylor
this spring, to allow companies considering the technique to hash out
economic and ethical issues.
Many Americans have felt uneasy about the power of advertising since the
post-World War II explosion of consumerism. Fears of subliminal messages and
corporate manipulation took root following Vance Packard's 1957 book, "The
Hidden Persuaders." The anxieties continue to echo through cultural
references such as Steven Spielberg's 2002 movie "Minority Report."
Most ethicists have only recently heard of neuromarketing, said Jonathan
Moreno, president of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities and
director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Virginia.
"It kind of distorts the marketplace relationship," Moreno said. "There's
supposed to be a level playing field between a buyer and a seller. But [with
neuromarketing], there isn't an opportunity for the consumer to create a
screen against the information. It violates the notion that it's possible
for the buyer to beware."
Richard Glen Boire, legal counsel for the Center for Cognitive Liberty
and Ethics in Davis, Calif., said marketers have tried to tease out
subconscious attractions to products for decades.
Neuromarketing "seems like it's really getting close to coercive use of
technology," Boire said. "But so far we don't see it crossing that line.
People have enough self-responsibility to say, 'I'm not going to buy it.' "
The leaders of BrightHouse, located in a former soap factory on Atlanta's
west side, say neuromarketing empowers consumers. By stressing brand
affiliation over product design, the technique encourages companies to
develop positive images and act accordingly, instead of hawking endless
streams of "new and improved" products, they maintain.
Clinton Kilts, an Emory behavioral scientist who is scientific director
of BrightHouse Neurostrategies, said people choose Ben & Jerry's ice cream
largely for reasons other than taste. The Vermont company is community
conscious, its owners reject the power structure by wearing flannel shirts,
and flavor names such as "Cherry Garcia" appeal to baby boomers who identify
with such bands as the Grateful Dead, he said.
The more people's brains illuminate a longing for good corporate
citizenship, Kilts said, the more companies will respond.
"We want to give consumers the power to influence companies," he said.
"I, like everyone else, have become fed up with the saturation of
Joey Reiman, chief executive of BrightHouse, said he's really after the
consumer's heart, not the brain.
"We're trying to understand what makes people resonate," Reiman said. "Do
I fly an airline that gets me there faster, or do I fly an airline that
actually lifts me up? Do I wear pants that fit or that fit into my life?"
Ruskin, of Commercial Alert, doesn't buy the pitch that neuromarketing
will help people. "I think they're spinning faster than a drill bit," he
said. "It's plain old market research taken to a new and potentially more
BrightHouse won't name the Fortune 500 client that paid about $250,000
for services including the neuromarketing study at Emory, conducted by Kilts
and Meaux. But BrightHouse's only current Fortune 500 clients are Coca-Cola,
Delta Air Lines, Georgia-Pacific and MetLife.
Emory officials weigh in
BrightHouse isn't conducting any neuromarketing studies at Emory now but
plans to do more. Kilts said Emory administrators have asked him to prepare
a conflict-of-interest management plan before pursuing more studies using
one of Emory's two research-designated MRI machines. The request came after
Commercial Alert sent a letter to Emory complaining about the research.
Dr. Robert Rich, executive associate dean of Emory's School of Medicine,
defended the BrightHouse study, saying the researchers presented their
findings at a scientific meeting and expect to publish them in a
"It's obvious that if you understand how people make decisions, there
would be commercial uses for it," Rich said. "I see nothing nefarious in
Graser, the study volunteer, said he isn't worried that his half-hour
entombed inside the MRI scanner could arm marketers with dangerous insights
into his mind.
"Big government and big companies have been trying to manipulate us since
the start of time," he said. "What's different about this?"
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