A few years ago, scientists one upped the Pepsi challenge. Unlike the original taste test, there were no camera crews or looks of staged surprise from loyalists of ‘the other’ leading cola. Instead, volunteers rested inside an MRI scanner and tasted sips of Coke and Pepsi delivered through plastic tubes. Some trials involved rating beverage preference by taste alone. On other trials, the brand labels were also provided. To reveal the effect of branding on preference, some of the cola samples were intentionally mislabeled.
The verdict? For most people, Pepsi labeled as Coke tastes better than Pepsi labeled as Pepsi.
Evidently, advertising works, and as this experiment went on to further suggest, you can in some sense ‘see’ a brand at work in the brain as it alters or supplements sensory processing.
While fascinating, these kinds of data probably aren’t exciting to someone peddling a second-rate product. What good is seeing the neural correlate of your lousy brand, especially if you’ve already invested a lot in it?
Naturally, what marketers would really want to do is run this process in reverse. That is, watch a brain respond to something yet untested, and predict its future success. Is there some kind of neural signature that indicates what will ultimately become popular and obsessed over, and what will flop?
For now, no. However, a recent study by a pair of scientists shows that the idea isn’t entirely implausible. Working from the departments of Economics and Neuropolicy at Emory University, Gregory Berns and Sara Moore found a surprising, if modest, correlation between brain activity while experiencing a new product and that product’s cultural popularity years later.
Instead of studying soft drinks, Berns and Moore studied music preferences in adolescents. In 2006, they placed 32 children, aged 12 to 18, in an MRI scanner and had them listen to a wide variety of short song clips downloaded from MySpace.com. The scientists took scans of song-related activity in the children’s brains, and had the children report how likable each song was. After identifying brain areas whose activity was correlated with song likability, the scientists patiently sat on the data for about 3 years.
During that time, the songs did what songs will do. A tiny percentage became extremely popular, a handful more became somewhat popular, and the overwhelming majority went nowhere. After tallying the sales information for each song, the scientists essentially took a shot in the dark. They re-examined brain areas associated with song likability years ago, and asked if activity in those areas predicted a song’s eventual success.
For one area -- the nucleus accumbens - the answer was yes. Though it certainly didn’t distinguish between hits and duds with dead-on accuracy, more activity in the accumbens was loosely predictive of higher sales.
This study wasn’t designed to test any specific idea about how the nucleus accumbens might do this. However, a good deal of other work has implicated this structure in reward processing and the subjective experience of pleasure, including that derived from music. The nucleus accumbens is one of the key subcortical structures of the brain’s mesolimbic pathway, a major subsystem bearing the neurotransmitter dopamine. Given the rich body of work linking dopamine to reward processing and valuation, it’s not surprising to see the nucleus accumbens implicated in the present study.