Back in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the advertising agency was no more than an ad broker -- a primitive rep firm, really -- buying and selling space in the popular journals and magazines of the time.
Over the years, agencies evolved to create advertisements and aid in the development of logos and packaging for products being sold by the companies these agencies represented. By the early twentieth century, shops were devoted to conducting research to determine what copy should be used, purchasing patterns, and consumer behavior. In 1915, J. Walter Thompson hired John B. Watson -- the University of Chicago founder of Functionalism and behavioral psychology -- to aid in its efforts.
It wasn’t long before agencies started applying the fruits of the research they'd been conducting to aid in the creation of advertising, as well as the planning and placement of media. Ad campaigns ever since have all been based, in some form or another, on an uncertain but hopeful understanding of the consumer’s mind.
Trying to get into the head of the consumer has been a long-time goal of marketers and advertisers. Nearly every way of doing so has been tried, from surveys to focus groups to double-blind taste tests.
Behavioral marketing and search marketing are both tactics that manifest a desire to know the mind of the consumer and slip messages into it, persuading an individual that the represented product or service will somehow alter his or her relationship with the world for the better, making him or her a happier, better adjusted, and a more accepted human being.
But what all of the methods for getting at the mind of the consumer have in common is that they all rely on trying to get at the inside by only dealing with what is expressed on the outside.
I had a philosophy professor at Berkeley, Wallace Matson, who used to say, “to affect the mind, you must affect the body.” But there are parts of the brain (which, for all intents and purposes, is part of the body) that can be affected directly, as though one’s hand were stuck into fire.
In the last two years, a new form of marketing study and practice has emerged called neuromarketing, which seeks to move consumers to action by speaking directly to the very center of the physical brain.
What is neuromarketing?
Most simply stated, neuromarketing is the study of the brain’s responses to advertising, the brands encountered in our daily lives, and all the associated messages and images that are strewn throughout the cultural landscape of everyday life.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, members of the eLab, a psychometrics center at the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University produced a series of studies pertaining to the influence of consumer experiential activities on the online flow experience.
These studies relied on the theories of “flow” developed by University of Chicago’s Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."
What the researchers were looking for was how subjects feel and act, without being conscious of it, when they engaged with online content, looked for information, or when they made ecommerce purchases. What effects does the online environment have on people when engaged in either goal-directed or experiential consumption behavior? What kind of impact does the virtual experience have on consumer learning?
What the research attempted to do was to get inside the mind of those subjects by paging them at random intervals and asking them for their immediate responses to questions about what they were doing and how they were feeling while they were doing it. The conclusion to several studies found that consumers were generally happier with themselves and their lives when they were engaged in something they were not consciously thinking about, and those companies that offered this kind of experience, albeit without conscious notice from users, benefited from these positive feelings.
With the information gleaned from these studies, companies could learn how to construct better online environments that allowed users to have better flow experiences. From the marketer's perspective, consumers with better flow experiences are also better consumers.
What this kind of research attempted to do is to get at the internal, subconscious states of mind, unadulterated by conscious deliberation.
In 2003, Dr. Read Montague, the director of the Human Neuroimaging Lab, and director of the Center for Theoretical Neuroscience at Baylor University, decided to get to the bottom of a long-standing marketing paradox.
For a long time, it was common for soft drink advertisers to conduct blind taste tests to demonstrate preference for one brand of soft drink over another. These taste tests were often the subject of advertisements produced and run by the winning soft drink advertiser. Unsurprisingly, the two beverage behemoths we are talking about here are Coke and Pepsi.
What Dr. Montague was curious about was, if Pepsi consistently won blind taste tests, why didn’t they dominate the market? Why was Coke just as consistently number one in sales?
He decided to conduct his own taste tests, only this time, the subjects were hooked up to an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machine and observed their neural activity. Though half of the participants, without knowing which sample was which, said that they preferred the one that was actually Pepsi, once told with samples were Coke, seventy-five percent said they preferred the taste of Coke. When looking at the MRI, Dr. Montague noticed that the neural activity changed once the subject was aware of which sample was which brand. When tasting Coke, once the brand of the sample was revealed, the medial prefrontal cortex -- a part of the brain that controls higher functions -- lit up like a Christmas tree.
What Dr. Montague thought might be happening was that the brains of the test subjects were recalling images and other forms of emotional association from Coke’s marketing and advertising. The brand itself was trumping the quality of the product.
(If you're interested in learning more about this, PBS' "Frontline" profiled Dr. Montague's research in a November 2004 program titled "The Persuaders.")
Neuromarketing is born
Over the last few years, interest in neuromarketing has grown tremendously, due in no small part to the advancements made in brain-imaging technology.
With advertising getting more and more expensive to produce and deploy, and with more consumers having their attention split between an increasing number of competing messages, companies are looking for newer, better and more effective means of getting in front of consumers to influence their actions.
BrightHouse, LLC in Atlanta, an “ideation” company founded by Joey Reiman, a former advertising executive and agency proprietor, opened BrightHouse Neurostrategies Group, among the first and world’s largest neurosciences consulting firms.
Led by Dr. Justine Meaux, BrighHouse Neurostrategies Group is working on uncovering insights into the emotional connections people have to brands and the businesses that generate them. The group has conducted studies for a range of Fortune 500 companies to help them figure out how to talk to consumers in such a way that the brand has impact on the brain in the way that brands seem to as demonstrated by the work of Dr. Montague.
What neuromarketing is trying to get at
The claims made by neuromarketing is that when you understand more about how the human brain works, and when you understand more about how your potential consumer’s brain works, then you can more effectively drive the decision-making process of the brain.
Typically, the brain itself is not aware of these cognitive processes: the so-called “reason” for choosing A over B bubbling up instead from the dark, reflexive sediment of the brain and rationalized by the more evolved, higher-function part of the brain.
Neuroscience is learning that there is more than one part of the brain that influences feelings, while another influences thought. Both parts of the brain can work at cross purposes during the process of making a decision. Neuromarketing holds out the promise of decoding these processes and converting marketing messages into a language that appeals to the different parts of the brain and motivates a decision in your favor.
Next week: an explanation of the different parts of the brain, which part of the brain marketers should be addressing, what the language is that that part of the brain speaks, and examples of what it is like when advertising and marketing speak that language.