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Up Close: Coke vs. Pepsi? It could be all in your head

07:18 PM CST on Sunday, February 15, 2004

By Dave Fehling / 11 News

Click to watch video

HOUSTON – It’s no secret that advertisers try every way they can to appeal to our appetites, our fears, our vanity and to try and get our business.

But wait till you find out how advertisers are trying to get inside your head.

In just one 10 o’clock newscast you’ll see 17 commercials trying to get you to buy specific brands of everything from fast cars to fast food.

Do the ads work? And if so, why?

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Brain scans tell researchers which product you like best.

Take one of the most advertised of all products: Soft drinks.

“Why do more people prefer Coke than Pepsi when in blind taste tests more people usually chose Pepsi than Coke. Could there be something about the Coke brand that does something to our brains?”

“Taste isn’t just what happens at the tip of your tongue,"explains Read Montague.

He’s a mindreader, so to speak.

In his lab at the Baylor College of Medicine, he’s getting national attention for what he’s discovered about why people end up buying Coke more than Pepsi.

“We could read the brain response, I could tell you just looking at the scan which one they liked best,” explains Montague.

He and his team put people in MRI machines like the ones usually used to find brain tumors.

In his Coke versus Pepsi experiment, which was not funded by either company, he found that when people weren’t told which was which, more preferred Pepsi.

And he could predict it because he found Pepsi’s taste lit up a part of the brain that responds to a feeling of reward.

But a funny thing happened when he told the people which was Coke and which was Pepsi.

“The knowledge that you’re drinking Coke in and of itself, independent of what we squirt in your mouth, causes this big response that is consistent across people and not so with Pepsi,” said Montague.

The brand-identity of Coke seemed to trigger a different part of the brain, one that governs higher thought processes.

The idea of what Coke represents makes people think they like the taste of it better.

“It makes it taste better, that defines what we mean by taste,” explains Montague.

So the power of the brand, its ability to seemingly convince us which soda tastes better could literally be seen in the brain.

You can guess where this is going.

What company wouldn’t want to use these machines to test its products or its advertising.

It could take advertising to a whole new level, right?

“It doesn’t matter what you want. We can make you buy things that you don’t want to. You don’t think you want to buy. That seems to be rather far-fetched, I think,” Partha Krishnamurthy.

He teaches marketing at the University of Houston and doubts this kind of technology could lead to mind controlling advertisements, but he says there is no doubt companies are starting to experiment with it, often he says, in secret.

“I am repeatedly seeing information that companies don’t want to be associated with that kind of research,” says Krishnamurthy.

Brain researcher Read Montague says mind control is far easier said than done.

“There’s no evidence there’s a singular buy button in your brain,” he explains. “If there was, companies spend millions on marketing every year, they would have stumbled onto something that the absolute button to buy that Pontiac at my dealership, not the one down the street.”

It’s something to think about during the next commercial.

The researchers say their brain scans have uses much more socially important than marketing.

One possibility is using the scans to assess the minds of mentally ill defendants in criminal cases to determine if they were so impaired they truly could not tell right from wrong.

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