Marketing managers spend millions every year on focus groups in
an attempt to probe consumers' decision-making processes.
Now a technique known as neuromarketing promises to provide
snapshot images of brain activity at crucial moments of retail
choice. Scientists have been putting volunteers into MRI (magnetic
resonance imaging) scanners to find out what goes on in their brains
when they look at pictures of consumer goods.
Their findings appear to offer new opportunities for manipulating
consumers. But the idea that scientists can equip companies with
sinister powers to influence the public has been a recurring fear
and an unfulfilled promise since the 1950s.
Until recently MRI has been used only in clinics - for diagnosing
strokes or discovering tumours - or for pure research, such as
identifying brain regions linked with movement or emotion. Now
laboratory insights are being matched to the needs of marketing
managers. Two neuromarketing centres, Brighthouse Institute and the
Mind Marketing Laboratory, have recently opened in the US.
MRI scanners were used this year for an investigation of a modern
marketing conundrum: why Coca-Cola outsells Pepsi, even though blind
tasting frequently shows more people prefer the taste of Pepsi. When
Read Montague of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas,
re-created the Pepsi Challenge blind tasting campaign of years ago,
he found those who preferred Pepsi showed a five times stronger
response in one of the brain's reward centres (the ventral putamen)
than those who liked Coke. Then he ran the scans again but this time
the volunteers knew which drink they were tasting.
"The result was remarkable," says Dr Montague. Not only did the
subjects nearly all say they preferred Coke but another area at the
front of the brain, the medial prefrontal cortex, which is linked
with thinking and judging, lit up as well as the ventral putamen.
"This showed that subjects were allowing their memories and other
impressions of the drink - in other words its brand image - to shape
their preferences." A strong brand, it seems, can override our taste
The conclusion was that if you find what stimulates the medial
prefrontal cortex you may have the basis of a successful advertising
Dr Montague's work was picked up by the Bright- house Institute
of Thought Sciences, based in the neuroscience wing at Emory
University Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia.
"This [the medial prefrontal cortex] is the area that is linked
to our sense of self," says Clint Kilts, scientific director of
Brighthouse. It is the area that used to be knocked out in a
lobotomy: damage here can cause drastic personality change. "If it
fires when you see a particular product," he says, "you are more
likely to buy because that product clicks with your self-image." The
Brighthouse team has found that when volunteers say they "truly
love" something, the medial prefrontal cortex lights up on the
The scans can also give other indications of what is going on in
your mind. When the team see an area called the somatosensory cortex
fire up, for instance, they know the subject is imagining using an
object. This region, which controls our physical movements, is also
active when we are thinking about a movement. But until the medial
prefrontal cortex lights up, we have not fully identified with the
Such findings could open the way for companies to discover
whether their products are triggering this vital response. "They
show that preferences have measurable correlates in the brain; you
can see it," says Justine Meaux, a neuroscientist at Brighthouse.
"We can use this difference to guide our decisions about how we
market to people."
Peering into the consumer's brain in this way is not cheap. Use
of an MRI scanner that generates moving pictures costs about $1,000
an hour, while a single experiment involving 12 subjects can cost
$50,000. The fee for a recent study by Brighthouse, with 30 subjects
viewing images ranging from rock climbing and President George W.
Bush to BMWs and the National Enquirer, was $250,000.
Against the cost is the argument that insights lead to an
advertising advantage that could be worth millions.
The frontal cortex is the area of the brain that is the last to
develop fully and the first to decline. It is at its peak between
about 12 and 50 years of age. This means very young children and old
people are more susceptible to urges that come from the emotional
Although neuromarketing is so far largely a US phenomenon,
scientists at the University of Ulm in Germany recently reported on
men asked to rate the attractiveness of cars. When they looked at
pictures of glamour cars such as Porsche and Ferrari, an MRI scan
showed activity in a brain region used for processing faces. This
area has strong links with the main emotional centres.
Other studies, using the more more basic electroencephalogram,
which records electrical activity from the scalp, claim to have
found that activity in the left prefrontal cortex indicates an
"approach" response, while one on the right indicates "revulsion".
The EEG has also been used to explore how well a message is
remembered. Richard Silberstein, a neuroscientist at Swinburne
University of Technology in Australia, argues that "the better you
remember a commercial message the more likely you are to buy the
Before anyone gets excited or anxious about manipulation and
control, some neuroscientists are expressing scepticism. Chris Frith
of the Institute of Neurology in London, says: "Just because you can
see and measure an increased level of activity in the brain, people
feel that is more authoritative than someone saying what they are
thinking or feeling. But we don't really know enough about how the
brain works as a system to be able to apply this research. It is too
early to say what findings like these mean."
The uncertainty Prof Frith outlines is highlighted by work under
way at the Max Planck Institute in Tubingen in Germany. Researchers
there have found that while MRI scans give accurate information
about how much information is coming into a brain area, they are not
so informative about what is being passed on elsewhere. They may
tell only half the story.
But the promise of neuromarketing is alluring and, rightly or
wrongly, we may yet see political focus groups swept away as
volunteers are herded into scanners to see which politicians tickle
their medial prefrontal cortexes.