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If you could read my mind

Friday, September 17, 2010

Marketers take a new look at controversial brainwave testing

SIMON HOUPT

shoupt@globeandmail.com

It turns out there are some books you can judge by their cover, after all.

When A.K. Pradeep was preparing to send his first book, The Buying Brain, out into the marketplace last month, he did what any self-respecting neuroscientist would do: He strapped some people into an electroencephalogram (EEG) getup to measure their brainwaves, and then showed them various versions of the cover. He was, in his parlance, "eating his own dog food," for while Mr. Pradeep is a budding author, he spends his days as the president and CEO of NeuroFocus, a Berkeley, Calif.-based company that reads people's brains in hopes of helping multimillion-dollar brands more effectively design products, packaging, retail environments, and marketing materials. NeuroFocus claims CBS, the U.S.-based Weather Channel, and Scottrade among its clients.

Now, Dr. Pradeep is talking up The Buying Brain, which is both an attempt to demystify neuromarketing and an argument in favour of his company's approach over others. Conventional focus groups and other market research require vast sample sizes in order to eliminate the variances of personality. The allure of neuroscience is that it can measure our responses to stimuli at the level of our reptilian brains - which means it can figure out our actual responses rather than the ones we give to people running a focus group.

"Let's say you've bought a house with five bedrooms, you're just a couple and you just needed two," begins Dr. Pradeep over the phone from London, where he was in a series of meetings. "You say, 'Well, I could use one for my office, the other for visiting parents or friends, and I've always wanted a game room.' So you find yourself rationalizing, justifying what you've already decided to do. This happens many, many times, with many, many people. So you very soon find that while there may be differences in the actual action as a result of considerations, rational and otherwise that come in, the prime mover of a lot of actions is the actual persuasion that happened in the brain. Modulation may come in later."

"In the case of a big-ticket item, typically there's a bit of modulation with reason. But if you look at a can of soda, or toothpaste, or a toothbrush, or a bag of chips, the amount of modulation by reason is relatively small. So you ask yourself: How many times do I go out every day and buy things that require rational consideration? I say maybe once or twice a year, and that's about it. The rest of it, you like to think you think about it, but you don't think about it!"

Neuromarketing exploded into the mainstream over the last decade, fed both by wild claims of its potential and the intensifying interest among business people, academics, and lay people in the science of thought. But it struck many as shady and unethical, the contemporary version of the 1950s-era fear of subliminal advertising. There was also something unutterably sad about harnessing the sum total of knowledge about the human brain - knowledge that would have made our ancestors swoon - in order to design a more alluring toilet paper or yogurt container. It was quickly attacked by consumer organizations and high-profile critics like Ralph Nader. (An article in The Independent warned: "They don't just want your money. They want your brain.") Many marketers refused to acknowledge they were engaging in the research.

The fear was fed in part by talk of the "buy button" in the brain that people surmised could be unethically manipulated. "Let me be candid and clear," Dr. Pradeep said. "There is no 'buy button' in the brain. Period, end of story. Okay? All the brain has are interconnected networks, and the networks amplify things. Some signals die away, but when things appeal to different parts of the brain, there's amplification, and there's resonance, and then the brain is very engaged. It may result in a purchase behaviour. When you find the place where you are implicitly and subconsciously connecting to the brand, and the network and the ad, they all continuously resonate, and one plus one becomes 10, not two."

In part because of that realization, neuromarketing has begun to crawl out of the shadows. The global research giant Nielsen invested in NeuroFocus as companies that included Microsoft and Frito Lay admitted to doing neuroscience research. Last year, the brand consultant Martin Lindstrom had a minor bestseller with his neuromarketing book Buyology, and was named to Time magazine's Top 100 most influential people. Over the summer, the communications agency Millward Brown said it had established a neuroscience practice. And earlier this month, the British journal New Scientist announced it had used NeuroFocus to test three different covers for a recent issue before settling on the one it published, resulting in what it said was a 12-per-cent increase in sales over the same week's issue from last year. (It neglected to mention there were many other variables at play.)

Meanwhile, the dismal economy has pushed marketing executives both to justify their budgets and provide more data on the effectiveness of their communications. Brainwave testing enables anxious marketers to lean on scientific data in making what can be gut-wrenching decisions.

Dr. Pradeep says the implications for neuroscience go far beyond advertising. In The Buying Brain, he makes the case for ease of use and simplicity in product design, outlining how that helps our reptilian brains cope with the challenges of existing in the modern world. "When you look at a cellphone: the menus, the pull-downs - all of those things are a nightmare, right? So, we are surrounded by technology, most of which we cannot use. So you look at the wastage of human innovation and human talent. And I argue that the principles of neuroscience are helping people simplify. If you look at a product design or an interface through the mind's eye, you'd quickly find out early on in the process of design what works and what doesn't work."

Dr. Pradeep is a smooth salesman. Reminded of the frequent criticisms lodged at neuromarketing, he launched into a hearty exhortation of how studying brains could lead to enlightenment of the human race (albeit an exhortation that was unselfconscious in its use of commercial terms). "Every day, teachers and educators are trying to advertise concepts of chemistry and physics and biology to students," he said. "They work very hard, day in and day out, and I'm not sure their advertising efforts are entirely successful."

"What if we unleash the power of neuroscience, and our understanding of how we like to understand, in creating better textbooks, better educational materials, better interaction, better experiences that really help us understand and immerse a concept in our mind? What kind of scientist would we have produced, instead of getting one Einstein in one century, what if one were to pop up every other day?"

"The lessons we learn in the commercial world of marketing and messaging and packaging have applicability that is far beyond that world."

Are you convinced? You might want to strap on an EEG cap just to be sure.