Booster Shots

Oddities, musings and news from the health world

« Previous Post | Booster Shots Home | Next Post »

To sell stuff, companies want to read your brain -- but are they even close?

March 12, 2010 |  5:04 pm

Brainscan I just finished reading an article recently published online in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience about "neuromarketing" -- the idea that brain scans might better reveal our propensity to buy something than do focus groups, surveys or pre-market tests.

Maybe, through peeking at brain activity, you could design foods people would absolutely adore. Ads that reel customers in. Food, architecture, political candidates, movies -- all might be perfected after brain-imaging tests are employed to show what people really are thinking and what they really, truly respond positively to. 

Beware, warn the authors (Dan Ariely and Gregory S. Berns): There are risks if such tools are used without care for the greater good. On the issue of food neuromarketing, for example, the authors caution that "the drawback to such an approach is the possibility of creating food products that are so highly tuned to neural responses that individuals may over-eat and become obese." Hmm, that would be unprecedented.

But if harnessed for public good? "The same techniques could be applied to making nutritious foods more appealing," the authors add.

The article is disappointing (or perhaps reassuring, depending on how you view these kinds of things) because it doesn't look as though neuromarketing is very far along, at least in terms of research that is in the public domain. (It's possible that there are more compelling data that neuromarketing businesses are keeping to themselves, of course.)

Sure, there are studies that show certain areas of the brain become more active when people anticipate something pleasant or look at or taste something they like, but it's not clear they do much better at predicting whether someone will buy an item than a conventional test that doesn't involve an MRI machine. Nor does there appear to be a "buy button," as the authors term it -- a part of the brain that lights up like a Christmas tree when people have made up their mind to purchase something.

Still, the authors -- and companies -- appear to see promise. In February, an article in the Wall Street Journal described how the Campbell Soup Co. redesigned its condensed soup labels after testing people's responses to them in a variety of ways, including ones that the WSJ article described as neuromarketing.

Brain scans weren't specifically mentioned, but other biological responses were, such as sensors tracking eye movements and vests that the subjects wore that captured heart rate, body sweat levels and breathing patterns. (Here's the website of one company involved in the investigation, Innerscope Research Inc. of Boston -- and I do wonder if they've tested people's skin reactions to their own website, with its tiny, fuzzy font.)

The upshot of the soup tests (which also included deeper-than-customary interviews) was a larger bowl of soup on the label, with warming wafts of steam coming from it. The spoon is gone (people didn't emotionally connect with the spoon) and the red Campbell's label has been moved to the bottom from the top of the can because it was distracting. The Wall Street Journal article quotes Robert Woodard, Campbell's vice president of global consumer and customer insights, as saying a deeper approach was needed because people can't really explain why they buy soup or they don't.

You can see the new and old labels here.

Read more about Campbell soup saga here.

Want to learn more about neuromarketing? Here's a blog devoted to the subject.

--Rosie Mestel

Photo credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times