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Idea #5: Beware of Neuromarketing

Adults are taught to be skeptical. But the subconscious is like a toddler.

Shannon Rupp 25 Dec

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at) 

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New ideas for the new year.

[Editor's note: Back by popular demand, The Tyee again is offering its readers a series of New Ideas for the New Year. We're publishing a new one every weekday from Dec. 22 through Jan. 2. They're intended to get everyone's problem-solving, creative thinking going for 2009. Later in January, we'll be asking you to suggest your own new ideas for the new year, and will publish a selection.]

Forget focus groups, marketing studies or even psychographics, 2009 is the year the selling juggernaut will use neuroscience and our own biology against us.

Or rather that's Buy-ology, the name of book by marketing mastermind Martin Lindstrom who recounts his findings from a massive brain-research project exploring why we buy. Appealing directly to the brain's buy impulse is called "neuromarketing," and he spent three years and $7 million, using both CT scanning and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) technology, to examine how people's brains respond to advertising and marketing ploys.

Lindstrom's findings echo those from some of the psychological strategies, but a surprising amount of the hard science shows that much of the most effective advertising is actually counterintuitive.

For example, health warnings on cigarette packs actually make people long to smoke. In Lindstrom's studies, the sight of these warnings prompted the "craving" centre of the subjects' brains to light up. Apparently, there's a subliminal appeal. People love cigarettes, and anything associated with them -- even dire warnings -- will get them salivating like Pavlov's dog. That includes the colours of cigarette packages.

Excluded from the usual ad venues, tobacco companies are way ahead on the subliminal advertising path. They pay attractive businesses such as smart cocktail lounges or NASCAR competitors to adopt package colours, which triggers the craving centre of the brain. Suddenly a patron in a gold and burgundy bar has an inexplicable urge to smoke. Cigarettes that feature a rugged individualist cowboy have also branched out into clothing and accessories with heartland style.

Lindstrom says this sort of subliminal advertising is actually more effective than conventional ads -- again, they can tell from the brain scans -- because it doesn't cause the consumer to put up a guard. The site of logos, brand names, or anything overtly connected with selling, such as a TV commercial, engages the conscious mind. Adults are taught to be sceptical. But the subconscious, it seems, is more like a toddler: easily seduced by anything that addresses primal emotional needs.

Sex slows sales

So what works for marketers and against you?

Sex, it turns out, doesn't sell (despite what every editor says). All that erotically charged imagery actually overwhelms the brain, which can't recall the product. What does work is sex with emotion, particularly sex with controversy. (Or as P.T. Barnum is alleged to have said, "There's no such thing as bad publicity as long as they spell your name right.")

Suddenly the success of that 1980 ad "Nothing comes between me and my Calvins," featuring barely pubescent Brooke Shields, 15, doing her Lolita routine, makes sense. As Lindstrom recounts, the outrage was loud, relentless and memorable. The most important thing in triggering a buy is to make a product memorable, which is what happens when a buyer experiences emotion connected with a product.

For this reason, product integration -- product placement where the gizmo is integral to the plot of a TV show -- is far more effective than conventional ads, which cue the audience to be en garde. Ironically, technology that allows viewers to skip TV ads may actually do sellers a favour, as it forces them to find more effective techniques.

Successful ads create fear about personal inadequacy (for which the product is the solution) but if you stimulate the part of the brain that registers general anxieties -- such as fear of job loss -- customers are put-off.

Wire up the focus group!

The best ads offer wish-fulfilment -- if you buy these jeans, you too will look like the pretty, happy models. But those models can't be out of the consumer's league. The trick is to create an idealized image of a consumer.

For example, Abercrombie and Fitch hired better-than-average looking teenagers to don the clothes and hangout, in packs, around their stores. They looked popular and attractive to the target market, but were well within what those teens could achieve themselves as long as they had the 'rents credit card.

With their underdeveloped brains, teenagers particularly have the urge to mirror other teens, an impulse that appears to explain a lot of fads. It's better known as monkey-see, monkey-do. Primates imitate those around them due, it turns out, to some observed actions stimulating certain satisfying parts of their little chimp brains.

Now marketers can wire up a focus group and see if the fad they're selling hits those relevant grey cells. No more "throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks," as Lindstrom puts it. Even in cases where we don't consciously want a product, this research will give marketers a hammer for hitting the wallet-opening reflex.

Resistance is futile

I wish I could promise that reading Lindstrom's analysis of his research will help you defend against neuromarketing, but the findings suggest the opposite -- soon consumers will have nowhere to hide. Well, short of actual hiding.

If you have any connection with the external world -- the shops, the media, the web, entertainment, religion -- you run the risk of being manipulated by cynical enterprises looking to separate you from your cash. Yes, that's business as usual, only now they have better tools.

Not that Lindstrom actually says that. He's more like a gleeful scientist who just discovered how to split the atom. Presumably, an editor warned him about his tone as he volunteers, at regular jarring intervals, that there's nothing frightening about neuromarketing.

(An ill-considered strategy. I found it merely fascinating until he employed the classic liar's technique of denying something before being accused. Now I suspect this is the nuclear bomb of consumer manipulation.)

His closing sentence advises reader-consumers to be "mindful." Well, caveat emptor to you too, buddy. But given that stealth marketing has invaded every nook and cranny of life, and neuromarketing can be crafted to trigger desire for even unappealing objects (Ugg boots come to mind), I think we have to just accept that resistance is futile.

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© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)  [Tyee]

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