Those of you who have been reading this site for awhile know that the only thing that interests me as much as business is neuroscience. Neuroeconomics is gaining ground, and now it looks like neuromarketing may be the next hot business field. (I suspect neuromanagement will come eventually too).
But they can try. Neuroscientists say that by peering inside your head they can tell whether you identify more strongly with J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter, say, than with J.R.R. Tolkien's Frodo. A beverage company can choose one new juice or soda over another based on which flavor trips the brain's reward circuitry. It's conceivable that movies and TV programs will be vetted before their release by brain-imaging companies. A "fascinating" possibility, says William Raduchel, until recently the chief technology officer at AOL Time Warner, who explored using MRI technology for that purpose last fall. "It's a little like mind reading," says Henrik Walter, a neurologist and psychiatrist with the University Clinic of Ulm, Germany, where he conducts brain-imaging work for DaimlerChrysler.
All this is moving toward an elusive goal: to find a "buy button" inside the skull and to test products, packaging and advertising for their ability to activate it. So far, researchers are figuring out which brain states facilitate product recognition and choice; they're related to primal urges like those for power, sex and sustenance. As for brand loyalty, it turns out that memory and emotion play a big role. "In the not-too-distant future, firms will be able to tell precisely if an advertising campaign or product redesign triggers the brain activity and neurochemical release associated with memory and action," predicts James Bailey, professor of organizational behavior at George Washington University.
Take the prefrontal cortex, an area that plays a key role in levelheaded decision making and long-term goals. It takes years to develop and then starts to lose some of its swagger when we're in our late 50s. That means kids under 12 and older people are more susceptible to urges that come from the amygdala, the emotional hot button in our heads. It responds to threats, emotional communication and sexual imagery–some of the stuff we see or hear in ads and other marketing ploys. The cookies on the low shelf in the grocery store are aimed at the 5-year-old's amygdala; an investment scam is aimed at the amygdala of a retiree. "By understanding the development of the prefrontal cortex, companies can market things in different ways," says Jordan Grafman, chief of the Cognitive Neuroscience Section of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders & Stroke at the National Institutes of Health. "There may be certain combinations of pitches they can use to appeal to the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. Or, if they know the age range of people watching a TV show, they can change a commercial to target them in different ways."
This has some interesting philosophical implications. For one, if we truly have a deterministic nature, is it wrong for marketers to exploit that? What I mean is, if marketers can figure out that neurologically we respond is deterministic ways to certain stimuli, is it wrong to use that? On the one hand, that is what marketers are doing now, they just aren't as successful as they would be if they had access to our brain scans. But on the other hand, if we do something to people knowing that they really have no choice but to do what we expect, isn't that sort of manipulative and immoral? We have decades before we know enough about the brain to make our marketing that accurate, but I still enjoy thinking about these dilemmas.