The Scientists Who Control Your Brain’s 'Buy' Button

The Scientists Who Control Your Brain’s 'Buy' Button

By Zara Stone

Your brain on marketing.
SourceChris Parsons / Getty


Marketers have long chased your dollars — now they’re going after your brain.

By Zara Stone

Earlier this year, Steve Miller watched as one of his employees attached electrodes to a subject’s head, stuck sensors on his arms and locked him in a windowless room. The subject was shown several videos, and his pupils dilated in response. This is no Clockwork Orange reboot, though — Miller is a neuroscientist and his subject a willing participant. The objective? To accumulate brain wave data to guide brands in deciding how to structure their Super Bowl ads — by looking for spikes in the brain’s pleasure center.

This kind of work, called neuromarketing, has been around for some time. It has generally stayed on the periphery of advertising, though, with many academics dismissing it as snake oil — all promise, no results. And then there’s the idea of being subconsciously influenced, which makes people extremely uncomfortable. Which is precisely why marketers are drawn to it, and why the field is growing rapidly — 40-plus universities offer related courses and graduates are in high demand.

For further proof that 2016 is the year neuromarketing moves from pseudoscience to must-have measuring tool, just follow the money. In May, the Viacom Lab opened in New York City, with a dedicated neuro-research area, and CBS’ Television City research center in Las Vegas has announced a push to correlate neuro-research with real-world sales. There’s also Chicago’s Shopper Brain Conference, where “the success of your product begins with a better understanding of your shopper’s brain,” and where marketers learn how to use neuromarketing in stores as well as in native ad design.

 This creates a demand for immediate data — “what consumers are doing at any given moment so we can provide relevancy.”

Many of today’s high-profile brands rely on neuro-research techniques, including MRI and EEG scanners for brain wave monitoring and eye tracking, facial coding and biofeedback. But the brands tend to keep it on the down-low. “Many brands use some kind of neurotechnique but very few will talk about it, as it’s scary for consumers,” says neuromarketing expert Roger Dooley. Miller agrees: “With any project you work on, you keep the name out the discussion.” 

Examples are therefore limited, but let’s take Samsung’s attempt to woo Apple fans. Samsung’s neuro-research indicated that solution-based ads would be more effective than humor (surprising, considering the historic Mac-PC campaign). And Frito-Lay repackaged SunChips to appeal to women, with visual cues that would not trip the brain’s “junk food” guilt switch. Uniqlo installed EEG headsets in their Australian stores — shoppers who gave the headsets a try and completed a short test were rewarded with a personalized T-shirt recommendation.

“The industry is changing because the consumer is changing,” says Scott Lachut, with trend insight firm PSFK. As of 2013, he says, humans have an eight-second attention span — significantly down from the past, which some might argue is due to our penchant for screen switching. This creates a demand for immediate data — “what consumers are doing at any given moment so we can provide relevancy,” explains Lachut. And the shift is influencing far more than retail transactions. Latin American politicians have hired neuromarketers for real-time campaign assessment, and the NBA uses facial coders to analyze players’ leadership potential.

Carl Marci, chief neuroscientist at Nielsen, has spent the past decade researching how to trigger emotional responses — the goal is to forge bonds that turn buyers into brand advocates. Marci’s process involves tracking the purchase path to “determine the levels of nonconscious emotional impact.” The result of this type of research is more targeted, effective advertising, not unlike the way Facebook suggests pages you might like. Whether you see the ads on your smartphone or in your inbox, common strategies to boost the open rate include emotional trigger words and teasing headlines sent in the afternoon. 

All too quickly, however, this niche form of marketing takes a Minority Report dive into the realms of HR, prisons, even schools. “It’s a small leap from commercial products to a world of education,” Dooley says. Ethical implications aside, he insists that neuromarketing tools could benefit struggling students, as teachers could use data points to customize lessons; this type of behavioral prediction, he says, could also be good for negating conflict.

The neuromarketing industry does have a code of ethics and adheres to global research rules, but there’s always the potential for abuse. France grew so concerned that it updated its bioethics code in 2011 to outlaw commercial brain imaging. And as researchers hope the wearable craze will fuel larger studies with a mobile data pool, detractors like Michal Matukin, director of science at neuromarketing company Neurohm, argue that cheap equipment creates “neuro-cowboys” who give the field a bad name. Still others warn against oversimplification. “It’s a myth that there’s a magic buy button in people’s brains,” says Rachel Kennedy, co-founder of the Ehrenberg-Bass Marketing Institute. “And we can’t read people’s thoughts!” She prefers to think of neuromarketing as a tool to enhance work, but that it can’t replace people with expertise.

Meanwhile, supporters like Dooley remain unfazed: “The world is full of bad advertising,” he says. “If this can eliminate a bit, it’s a public service.”