Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Mindfield: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World by Lone Frank, to be released in the U.S. November 10.
Say the word: neuromarketing. Doesn’t exactly sound good, does it? It’s an outlandish word that scrapes across the tongue, leaving an aftertaste of thought control, science fiction, and downright creepiness. The press surrounding neuromarketing reflects this as well. The headlines are ominous: soon, the bright boys of the advertising world will get their sticky hands on our inner "buy button." Soon, marketing experts, with the help of cutting-edge brain research, will get direct access to the inner depths of our brains where, with the right stimulation, they can unleash our buying impulses and get their cash registers ringing.
Neuromarketing is a young and growing field–some won’t even admit that it is a field yet–that is striving to reveal the inner mechanisms of our consumer behavior. You might say that this interest and the issues it raises are a natural extension or offshoot of neuroeconomics and the more general studies of how we make choices and decisions. Every so often, there is also a conspicuous overlap between neuroeconomists and researchers in neuromarketing. The studies in neuromarketing are just more specific and much more directed. And the Holy Grail lies in predicting what the brain wants.
In the advertising industry, you can see neuromarketing as an attempt to make the "art" of advertising into a science. Any marketing expert proposing a multi-million dollar project to a client would like to be able to back it up with something that looks like real data, not just hunches. To answer this need, marketing has already drawn on psychology in developing tests and theories, and ad people have borrowed the idea of the focus group from social scientists. Brain research is the third wave. And neuromarketing has taken on a warm, fuzzy glow in the advertising world, where they convene meetings and conferences about its potential and, every so often, proclaim in their journals that it is the undeniable wave of the future. Such enthusiasm is harder to find in the scientific arena. Marketing is not a science, many say, pointing out that only a small handful of studies have been published in scientific journals.
Still, the whole thing started in academic circles, when in 2003 Clinton Kilts of Atlanta’s Emory University called in a team of volunteers for a series of experiments to throw light on the brain’s role in product preferences. How does activity in brain cells mirror things we are crazy about as opposed to things we absolutely hate or that just don’t speak to us? At that point, Kilts had nothing to do with marketing or advertising in general, but the fundamental question tickled his fancy.
The volunteers came in and, in the first round, were presented with an array of various consumer goods, which they were asked to rank by appeal. Simple answers on a numerical scale. In the next phase, they were taken through the MRI scanner as they were once again shown the same goods, while the apparatus registered the brain activity they aroused. When Kilts later analyzed the reactions of the research subjects, there was a common feature that leapt to his notice at once. Every time one of them–male or female–saw a product they really liked, blood rushed to a little area towards the front of the brain. The medial prefrontal cortex lit up like a beacon in the images.
This result lit a fire under Clinton Kilts, who knew he was onto something interesting. The medial prefrontal cortex is not just any old brain region–it is an area very much involved in our self-identification and the construction of our personality in general. This part of the frontal lobes is involved when we relate to ourselves and to who we are in some way. Kilts was quick to draw his conclusion. The scanning experiments, he believed, indicated that, if you are attracted by a product, it is because you identify with it. That the product fits into the picture you have of yourself.
This was quite exciting–in a nice academic way–but the debut experiment seemed to provide an obvious opportunity to do a new sort of study of the market. Kilts could see a future where researchers didn’t have to go out and ask people what they thought about a product anymore, or rely on their vague answers and poor self-insight. No, potential consumers could just be scanned and the answers could come straight from the brain.