Finding the 'Buy Button'

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.

"There are arguments to be made that the people are stupid, they're violent, they're uneducated, and they need to be programmed so they don't rape and pillage each other," he said. "Even if you buy that, Coke and Wal-Mart are probably not the people you want to do the programming."

Miller denies that is why BrightHouse was interested in Kilts' work.

"There is no magic area of the brain that is the 'buy button,' " he said. "We are not in the business of using this to tweak products or advertising so people will be drawn in. Our business is to understand consumers, to give businesses a better relationship with consumers, to supply better products and brands for the consumer."

The research began in June 2002 and Kilts said he plans to publish the results in academic journals this spring. The work involves having subjects undergo an MRI as they think about a product, which allows researchers to see which parts of the brain are involved in the thought process.

"We are probing not what you're thinking, but how you're thinking," Kilts said. "This is just an observing tool, so there's no ability to change behavior."

What Kilts says he is studying is preference — how people decide that they like one product over another. It is the key to understanding the paradox of the "Pepsi Challenge," when people prefer the taste of Pepsi-Cola in a blind taste test, but prefer Coca-Cola when they know what they are drinking, because of intangibles they associate with the Coca-Cola brand, Kilts said.

This aspect of the study, Miller said, is where the research promises to benefit not only companies but consumers and society as a whole.

BrightHouse's strategy, he said, is to get companies to focus on their "master idea," the idea that the founder had when they started the company. In the case of nearly every successful company, that idea was not making money, but making a product that would make people's lives better, he said.

"We espouse the idea that master ideas really can improve public life," Miller said. "It can serve both the financial interests of the company and the public good. And if companies do that, we believe they can attract not only quality employees, but also consumers."

BrightHouse executives were interested in Kilts' research because they believed it would support their assumption that consumers form allegiances to companies based on issues that go beyond the qualities of the product itself.

The research indicates that people's attachment to a brand or company go deeper than was previously believed, Miller said, which reinforces the idea that companies need to create a positive image with their business practices as well as with the quality of what they produce.

The company is not interested in using the process that Kilts used in his research as a model for 21st century focus groups or product testing, Miller said.

Kilts himself admits that the testing was done in a "very non-naturalistic environment," inside a machine that is "very loud and very confining," which makes the traditional product testing model impractical.

And though he says he always recognized the potential value of the work for businesses, Kilts said his interest is in what it can potentially teach about human psychology. It is a chance, he said, to learn about human preference outside of the behaviorist model of reward and punishment.

That is why from the start he demanded that the results of the work be subject to peer review and published in scientific journals. For the work to have real scientific validity, it will need to be replicated with similar results, he said.

In Ruskin's view, the goal of the work can only be to benefit corporations, and for that reason Commercial Alert has asked for a federal investigation of whether Emory should have its government funding cut off.

"Whatever its theoretical and hypothetical uses [and these are chilling for their own reasons] in actual practice it most likely will be used directly by these corporations to push products that are implicated in disease and human suffering and that impose greats costs upon individuals, families and the society at large," Commercial Alert's letter to Division of Compliance Oversight for the Office of Human Research Protections director Kristina Borror said.

Despite his belief that the research has "a bias to a particular type of abuse," Rushkoff says he doesn't really believe that neuromarketing would lead to a nation of zombies having their "buy button" pushed over and over.

"These things never work," he said. "Or if they do, they don't work for long."