If you feel like advertisers get into your head now, you ain't seen nothing yet.
That's the fear expressed by some critics of research in an area known as neuromarketing, which one executive at the company funding the research said gives "unprecedented insight into the consumer mind," and will allow advertisers to get customers "to behave the way they want them to behave."
But according to the lead scientist doing the research, the work will make life better for consumers by letting businesses gain a better understanding of how people decide what products and companies they prefer.
"The goal was always not to change the behavior of the consumer, but to change the behavior of businesses in how they relate to the consumer," said Clinton Kilts, a scientist at Emory University in Atlanta who has been pioneering the research.
"We became aware of frustration from the consumer about what business is not doing — that is, finding out who the consumer is and what the consumer wants," he said.
So he started putting people in MRI machines, showing them pictures of products and asking them to think about how they are used. From the MRI he gained images of how the brain was processing those thoughts, which he believes sheds light on how people form preferences.
The work, which is being done with funding from BrightHouse Neurostrategies, a branch of an Atlanta-based market research firm, has raised concerns on two levels: what the goal of the research is and whether an institution that carries out such experiments on humans should should receive federal funding.
"It sounds like something that could have happened in the former Soviet Union, for purposes of behavior control," Gary Ruskin, the executive director of Commercial Alert, a group that opposes commercialization of American society, wrote in a letter to the U.S. Office for Human Research Protections asking for an investigation of whether the experiments at Emory violate federal standards for research on humans.
Kilts said the research has legitimate scientific interest, and that its potential value to business is a sidelight. He said little is known about how preference decisions are made, and that the work he is leading will help to shed light on that.
MRIs allow scientists to watch brain activity as a person thinks or is exposed to stimuli, allowing them to see where in the brain those thoughts or responses occur.
Though both Kilts and BrightHouse president Bill Miller say there is nothing sinister in the research, the impression that what it is all about is mind control comes in part from another BrightHouse executive, Adam Koval.
"What it really does is give unprecedented insight into the consumer mind. And it will actually result in higher product sales or in brand preference or in getting customers to behave the way they want them to behave," he said in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Company.
That's exactly the kind of goal that makes some people uneasy — as if it could lead to the discovery of a "buy button" that would allow advertisers to bypass the checks and balances of reason.
"You're not going to stop technology, but this line of technological development has biases, it has tendencies," said Douglas Rushkoff, the author of Coercion, a book about the power of media. "This has a bias to a specific type of abuse. What we have to decide is whether we want to live in a society where our behaviors are for sale to the highest bidder.