Money on Our Minds

Apr 10, 2020 · 8 min read

What’s going through your mind when you watch a commercial on TV, or see an advertisement on a billboard? According to neuromarketing, the answer is much more than meets the eye.

Neuromarketing emerged as a promising venture for advertisers when researchers began demonstrating that marketing techniques triggered tangible impacts on brain behavior. A 2004 study at Emory University was one of the first to demonstrate these impacts. Using an fMRI machine, researchers measured subjects’ responses to drinking Coca-Cola and Pepsi. When the drinks weren’t identified by name or visual branding, neurological responses were shown to be fairly stable. However, when visible branding was introduced, the brain scans produced via fMRI showed enhanced neurological activity, particularly in the limbic structures of the brain, demonstrating that branding influenced people’s perception of products, and has a measurable impact on the brain.

Neuromarketing seems to be useful as a predictive tool as well. Another study in 2012 — also out of Emory University — found a strong correlation between brain activity in reward-related regions while listening to songs, and the sales and popularity of those songs measured three years later. The level of brain activity in these regions predicted the future cultural popularity of the songs the subjects listened to. Interestingly, the study found that this brain activity revealed something that behavioral analysis on its own could not have: the same participants’ responses when asked how much they liked the song did not have the same correlation to sales down the road.

While still a fairly young field, prominent companies like eBay and PepsiCo have already started implementing neuromarketing techniques. The Weather Channel, for instance, used EEG, along with biometric tracking of eye gaze and skin response, to learn more about the emotional reactions of viewers watching prospective promotional videos, and chose which advertisements to air based on the results. Daimler, an auto giant best known for the Mercedes, used fMRI readings to help them decide the design of their products — activity in the reward center of the brain-inspired a more humanoid design for their headlights.

Methods of Neuromarketing

The purpose of using neuroscience in the marketing sphere is two-pronged: first is to measure consumer response and second is to influence consumer preferences. To measure consumer responses, companies employ four main techniques: fMRI, EEG, eye-tracking and biometrics, and facial coding.

Functional magnetic resonance (fMRI)

While functional magnetic resonance imaging techniques (fMRI) are often used for neurological research and to collect medical data, these machines can provide insight into consumer preferences and behaviors for companies that are trying to promote their products and services. An fMRI machine detects blood flow in a subject’s brain where there is increased brain activity. Given a particular stimulus, such as various versions of product packaging, subjects are asked to answer questions regarding the stimuli. This in turn activates specific areas of the brain, leading to higher oxygen demand and blood flow to those areas. The increased blood flow is detected by fMRI magnets and a brain image is generated indicating the active regions of the brain.

Because certain regions of the brain are associated with certain functions and human emotions, an fMRI machine’s ability to discern active brain regions is advantageous to marketers. For example, the insular cortex is involved in the human emotion of disgust. When the activation of the insular cortex is detected in consumers in response to certain aspects of an advertisement, companies are made aware of a potential pitfall in their marketing strategy and are more likely to alter the advertisement to make it more favorable to potential consumers. Beyond advertisements however, the marketing division of companies can use information from fMRI’s to improve everything from their branding to their pricing.

However, despite fMRI machines’ abilities to provide detailed information about the brain’s neurological reactions and consumer emotions, its hefty price tag, size, and technical complexity hinder its popularity in the neuromarketing industry.

Electroencephalogram (EEG)

Compared to fMRI, EEG biosensors and their portability make it much easier for companies to utilize in settings that consumers frequent. EEG biosensors register electrical signals from neurons in the consumer’s brain through the scalp via electrodes. Changes in these electrical signals give researchers evidence of whether a customer is engaged in a particular advertisement, undergoing an emotional response, or not paying attention at all. Companies take in this information and use it to guide their marketing strategies. For example, if EEG data reveals that potential consumers have a spike in brain activity during the first half of a commercial but it gradually drops as the commercial continues, the company can target its efforts on improving the second half of the commercial.

While this technique is noninvasive and relatively straightforward to use, it is expensive and the data is often fraught with background noise preventing this technique from becoming the most popular neuromarketing method.

Eye-tracking and Other Biometrics

Companies focusing on neuromarketing realize that one of the best ways to monitor a person’s responses and allocation of attention is through tracking eye movements.

Tracking a subject’s gaze is an easy way to measure visual attention and associated implications. These include types of images that catch people’s eye, how long a brand logo or advertisement captures attention, and how one company’s branding compares to that of a competitor. Additionally, pupil tracking, or pupillometry, holds immense promise as an indicator of engagement levels by measuring pupil dilation.

For example, in 2017 Smashbox Beauty Cosmetics collaborated with ModiFace — a company that creates augmented reality technology for beauty brands — to create an app that allows consumers to perform “try-on” simulations of beauty products on live video, and at the same time integrates eye-tracking technology to gather information about which products pique consumers’ interest. For example, if a consumer’s gaze lingers on a shade of lip gloss Smashbox can tailor future advertising for that individual to similar products.

Facial coding

The process of facial coding is a fairly straightforward one; companies identify and evaluate individuals’ facial expressions in response to certain products or methods of branding and advertising. This is one of the most inexpensive and reliable ways for companies to gauge general emotional responses.

Facial coding is made possible through the use of computer algorithms such as the one developed by EyeSee, a behavioral research company, that hone in on the main features of the face, such as the eyebrows and mouth, and analyze the movements of these regions. By tracking small changes, the algorithm can match those movements to universal facial expressions of a range of human emotions such as happiness, sadness, disgust, and more.

Beyond simply measuring consumer responses, companies are equally interested in using neuroscience-based methods to change and influence consumer preferences. On one end of the spectrum, companies are utilizing psychological tricks and the concept of sensory marketing to alter the minds of potential consumers into noticing their product more or into preferring their service over competitors’ services. But on the other end of the spectrum, there’s ongoing research into sleep nudging, the process in which researchers take advantage of periods in our sleep where our brains are particularly malleable and susceptible to being influenced into favoring one brand more than others. In a 2014 study, while asleep, smokers that were exposed to the smell of cigarettes mixed with rotten eggs or fish were more likely to reduce the amount they smoke. This study provides more evidence into the idea that certain types of conditioning can induce changes in human behavior, including consumer behavior, during sleep. Researchers are also looking into temporal neural inhibition — where certain nerve cells or areas of the brain are suppressed or activated using magnetic fields from transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) machines to encourage people to engage more with certain companies.

Concerns about Neuromarketing

Despite the demonstrated promise of neuromarketing, many companies and advertisers still prefer traditional methods. This is in part fueled by an attitude of skepticism surrounding the ability of neuromarketing techniques to do anything that tried and true techniques don’t already do. On top of that, the expense and expertise required to use fMRIs or EEGs for consumer research is far greater than that of behavior-based research.

Additionally, concerns about the ethics of neuromarketing have cast a shadow over the popularization of the field. With more traditional marketing techniques like surveys, participants have much more conscious control over the answers that they give. While of course they don’t have any reason to lie, results of survey-based studies don’t always translate well to actual consumer behavior, often because the decision to buy something isn’t made exclusively by conscious thought. Neuromarketing avoids this issue by delving deeper into the mind of a consumer and gathering information about subconscious biases and tendencies. The idea that a company knows more about your thoughts than you do is frightening for many people — after all, skeptics ask, if an advertisement plays at subconscious processes outside of my control, does that mean that a particularly powerful ad could override free will?

Neuromarketing supporters’ response? Traditional marketing already does this. Almost every form of marketing that exists plays on subconscious processes to an extent. Fast-paced, bass-heavy music in commercials for exercise equipment seeks to make consumers feel excited, motivated. Lighting and fragrance in designer brand stores are chosen to create an atmosphere of luxury for shoppers that will hopefully overcome their hesitation at buying an expensive product.

Still, neuromarketing provides advertisers with a much more powerful tool of uncovering the subconscious tendencies of consumers, and manipulating them for profit. While the fear that neuromarketing will result in ads able to completely circumvent free will and hit a “buy button” in the brain may be a bit far-reaching, the possible consequences of information gained from consumer research being used maliciously is certainly magnified.

Another major ethical concern has to do with privacy. Many people find issue with the idea that advertisers ‘know’ their thoughts — it feels like a line has been crossed. Of course, no advertiser actually knows the thoughts of all of their consumers, they only know what they’ve measured from a small sample of participants, and assume that what they’ve found will apply to their wider consumer base. However, even on the scale of just those who participated in a neuromarketing research study, standards around informed consent are far less strictly adhered to in the business world compared to academia. Though it’s hard not to realize your brain is being scanned when you’re hooked up to an EEG machine, informed consent has the potential to become much murkier as neuromarketing technology gets less and less invasive. Take eye tracking and facial expression coding for example — as these technologies become more advanced, they can easily become far more subtle as well. Businesses could track the responses of real in-store consumers without their consent. Strict guidelines for consumer research are surely necessary to circumvent surreptitious practices such as these, as neuromarketing techniques develop.

Even as society grapples with the ethicality of neuromarketing as a whole, the pursuit to understand the minds and decisions of consumers rapidly continues. Despite the extensive neurological research that has been done and the advancements and discoveries that have been made, we are just barely scratching the surface.

Written by UC Berkeley students Josephine Tai and Melody Sifry, and edited by Jandy Le. Josephine is studying Molecular and Cell Biology, Melody is studying Cognitive Science, and Jandy is studying Integrative Biology.

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Written by

We write on psychology, ethics, neuroscience, and the newest in neural engineering. @UC Berkeley

The Startup

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We write on psychology, ethics, neuroscience, and the newest in neural engineering. @UC Berkeley

The Startup

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