Are Sales People Becoming Mind Readers?

Brain scans could revolutionize consumer marketing, researchers say.

March 10, 2010 — -- Would you be wary oftechnology that might tell a sales clerk what you are most likely to buy, even if you think you haven't made up your own mind?

You would be a sucker for whatever the clerk is peddling because he or she might know more about what you want than you do yourself.

But what if the same technology could make you love to go on a diet, spend a few hours at the gym or do your homework?

Proving once again that there's no such thing as a free lunch, cutting-edge science is teaming up with commercial industries to literally peer inside the human brain and figure out how to make products that we will find more difficult to resist. It's an advertising executive's nirvana.

That may be a bit scary, but the same technology could lead to better products, because stuff could be tested even before it is built, and it could help make some distasteful chores more palatable by appealing directly to the brain's pleasure center.

Marketers Are Learning How to Literally Read Our Minds

This isn't science fiction. It's "neuromarketing," an embryonic field that could revolutionize consumerism. The brain scanners that have fascinated academic researchers for the past couple of decades are moving into the commercial sector as marketers learn how to literally read our minds.

Ale Smidts, professor of marketing research at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, coined the term in 2002, and it has caught on among industries ranging from auto manufacturers to soft drink producers. The field, which now includes several companies that specialize in neuromarketing, builds on work that has been a huge boon to medical and scientific research.

Scanners like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have allowed researchers to examine the inner workings of the brain. Blood rushes to areas of the brain that are activated by various stimuli, causing them to "light up" and thus reveal which parts of the brain are responsible for such things as memory, bodily functions, and yes, pleasure.

That has led some marketers to hope they can find a "buy button" somewhere in the human brain. Figure out how to punch that button and the sales will start rolling in. But that has been largely dismissed as hype by serious researchers. The brain probably does not have a buy button, but it certainly has a pleasure center, and therein lies the attraction.

Hype, Hope Surround Neuroimaging in Commerce

That could be both good and bad, according to Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. Ariely and a colleague, psychiatrist Gregory Berns of Emory University, are coauthors of a paper in Nature Reviews Neuroscience on the "hope and hype of neuroimaging in business."

Ariely said in a telephone interview that "finding exactly how the pleasure center works can lead to products that are more pleasurable or more addictive." Ariely described himself as "cautiously opportunistic" because he believes neuromarketing could lead to better products, but he is also concerned about potential negative impacts.

In their paper, Ariely and Berns note that "the use of neuroimaging by commercial manufacturers to design a more appealing food product is both feasible and likely." So far, so good, but they go on to add this:

"The drawback to such an approach is the possibility of creating food products that are so highly tuned to neural responses that individuals may over-eat and become obese." And they pose this question:

"Is it possible that such a neuroimaging approach could create a 'super heroin of food,' a product so delicious that all but the most ascetic individuals would find it irresistible? It is an extreme but real possibility."

Person Must Agree to Brain Scan Before it Can Be Conducted

Lab experiments with rats, he said during the interview, show that such a scenario is not all that far out. He said an electrode, placed in the pleasure center of a rat's brain, and activated by a lever that the rat can push, proves that point.

"Every time the rat presses on the lever, it gets an electrical shock in the pleasure center," he said. "It's so much more pleasurable than food or sex or anything else that the rat just continues doing it. It doesn't stop until it dies."

The pleasure center is very real, by the way. It lights up when a human takes recreational drugs, which partly explains why drugs are so addictive.

That's a little scary, but Ariely emphasized that none of this means a sales person will be able to read your mind when you walk into the store. A person has to agree to have a brain scan before it can be conducted, and an MRI is more than a little obtrusive. It's a big, noisy machine, and the person lies inside it during the scanning.

It's also very expensive, which is one of the drawbacks to neuromarketing.

Neuromarketing, so far, has been limited to advertising, but it has invaded many different domains.

Daimler-Chrysler found a few years ago that a sportier car lights up the reward centers in the male brain, which may explain ads showing a stuffy Mercedes-Benz performing like a racecar.

Ariely believes the real future of neuromarketing lies in product development, not just advertising or marketing.

Someone in an MRI, for example, can respond to a virtual reality image, or food that can be consumed or piped into the machine.

"The real hope for functional MRI is actually before the product exists," he said. "Imagine that you have 20 possible products, and you're not sure which one would work the best. You can create a virtual presentation" for a person inside an MRI and see which areas of the brain light up. Then you build the one that works, not the 19 that didn't.

MRI is only one of several systems used in modern studies of the brain.

Researchers also use electroencephalography, which uses electrodes applied to the scalp to measure changes in the electrical field of the brain; magnetoencephalography, which measures changes in the magnetic field produced by the brain; and various sensors to measure changes in physiology resulting from stimulation of the brain.

Too Early to Tell Where Neuromarketing Will Go

At this point, it is too early to tell which direction neuromarketing will take. Ariely and Berns worry that "manufacturers could use neural information to coerce the public into consuming products that they neither need nor want." They hope, instead, that it will be used to create better products.

And of course, at some point, there will probably be a pretty strong reaction from the public. There has been some opposition, and a little public discussion, but not much.

A few decades ago advertisers were leaning toward something called subliminal priming. A prompt, like a soft drink can, flashes across the movie screen so quickly that the viewer doesn't even notice it. But the image remains imbedded in the person's memory, and sales, theoretically, soar.

Public outrage over the possibility of becoming consumer zombies doomed subliminal priming, although it remained a fertile field for researchers.

So there is always the possibility that neuromarketing will become "yesterday's fad," as Ariely put it. But probably not. This isn't the 1960s anymore. Back then, advertisers could only guess about whether the brain had a pleasure center, or reward center. Now we not only know it's real, we have dead rats to prove how powerful it is.