Neuromarketing – The Art of Penetrating the Subconscious to Stimulate Consumption
Austrian American propaganda guru Edward Bernays was a creator of many things including the invention of Public Relations, and was considered by many to be an evil mastermind when it came to engineering consent. Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud and drew much inspiration from his uncle's theories leading him to the conclusion that the masses were irrational and subject to herd instinct. He believed that through the use of crowd psychology and psychoanalysis the masses could be controlled in desirable ways - he even made the point that manipulation of consumer’s instincts was possible and encouraged it. The summary of his views on the engineering of consent is now commonplace as the modus operandi on how to brainwash a nation through mass communications. Today some marketing practices have been developed on these ideas and have led consumerism down a very a dark path. Marketers tapping into your subconscious to harness your emotional reactions in order increase your desire may seem like the plot of a science fiction movie villain, but in reality, neuromarketing is a real practice and is being used by many large companies today.
Although there are numerous companies secretly using neuromarketing to influence your consumption, some of them have not kept this as clandestine as others and have publicly admitted to using it. A few of the companies who have disclosed their practice of neuromarketing include Frito-Lay, Yahoo, Mercedes-Benz, Facebook, Coca-Cola, CBS, and eBay. Any of these brands sound familiar to you? Of course, they do, they’re household names and most people use their products every day. These brands using neuromarketing are extremely well known and popular.
How many times have you thought to yourself, “Wow, I really need a Coke Right now?” Coca-Cola’s extensive neuromarketing ad campaign could very well be the reason behind that.
Neuromarketing is the unnerving and potentially unethical field of study that combines neuroscience and marketing and focuses on studying the brain to better understand how to exploit it to sell products. It involves utilizing brain scans and neuroimaging to see which messages will positively stimulate your subconscious. Simply put, it’s the manipulation of the brain to tap into nonconscious emotions that can then be used to stimulate desire and purchase intent. Firms such as Nuerofocus and EmSense, which have now both been acquired by Nielsen Consumer Science used EEG (electroencephalograph) technology and other techniques to correlate brand activity with physiological reactions such as skin temperature and eye movement to gauge how people respond to adverts. Other techniques in the practice include fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to monitor the brain's cognizance when exposed to various marketing stimuli. Renowned American marketing professors Philip Kotler and Kevin Lane Keller cite the following case study in their 14th edition text on marketing management, which provides a critique on neuromarketing. In 2006 a group of UCLA researchers used fMRI to measure how consumers responded to Super Bowl ads from that year and found that the ads for which the subjects displayed the highest brain activity were different from the ads with the highest stated preference. The major insight drawn from all this research revealed that many purchase decisions appear to be characterized less by logical factors and more by unconscious habitual processes thus validating Edward Bernays' belief that the masses are indeed irrational beings. Even basic decisions such as the purchase of gasoline seem to be influenced by brain activity at the sub-rational level, wrote Kotler and Keller.
Before the conception of neuromarketing, companies needed to hold focus groups and actually ask us what we wanted to buy. But now they’ve bypassed seeking our consent have and gone straight into our brains to figure out what metaphorical “button” they have to push with their ad to get us to buy. This insidious form of marketing began as early as the 90s with marketing professor Gerald Zaltman and his associates who were working for Coca-Cola at the time and tasked to explore brain scans and study the brain activity of consumers. Zaltman eventually discovered and patented a process for understanding the mechanics of emotionally complex and powerful advertisements by monitoring the conscious and non-conscious reactions of consumers to these ads, and he could then use them to help marketers narrow down how to trigger an unconscious desire to buy.
The method of recording consumers’ brainwaves is through the use of EEG scanners to map their brainwaves every two milliseconds while an ad is playing. Subsequently, the response of their brainwaves is used to measure how emotionally connected viewers are to the advertisement. Kotler and Keller elaborate on this process in a bit more depth by citing a case study involving a group of researchers in England who used EEG to monitor cognitive functions related to memory recall and attentiveness for 12 different regions of the brain as subjects were exposed to ads. Brainwave activity in different regions indicated different emotional responses – heightened activity in the left prefrontal cortex is characteristic of an agreeable response to an ad and indicates an attraction to the product being advertised, while a spike in brain activity in the right prefrontal cortex is indicative of rejection to the product being promoted. Other research even revealed that sometimes it's not even the brand that causes any emotional stimulation, but rather the personality traits of the people in the ad which activate different regions of the brain. Once the marketers can see how a person responds to the ad they can then send it back for fine-tuning to make the emotional connection stronger.
Normal market research like surveys and focus groups try to understand consumers’ decision-making through rational systematic reasoning, but fall short in trying to understand the non-conscious thinking aspects. Neuromarketers have found that our non-conscious thoughts are very influenced by our emotions and that our emotions are all regulated by our amygdala. Our amygdala keeps our emotions like fear, aggression, sadness, and joy all in check.
Unfortunately for most, neuro-marketers have found a way to overload our amygdalas so that they can bypass our conscious decision-making and induce more desire into our subconscious. Once they have tapped into our amygdala, we virtually become totally irrational, which in this case results in a series of impulse purchases and an insatiable craving for retail therapy. This is achieved through highly emotional advertisements, which plant products into our subconscious thoughts without us finding any real legitimate need for them. In the end, we all subscribe to Barbra Kruger’s famous quote “I shop therefore I am”. This practice becomes extremely problematic when you realize that marketers may no longer need to appeal to what the customers want. All of the unwanted products they plant into consumers' minds will eventually be thrown away, further continuing the wasteful cycle of unnecessary consumerism that plagues our materialistic society.
In addition to increasing the amount of garbage and wastefulness, neuromarketing is also extremely invasive and unethical, even for marketers. Those in marketing and advertising have not shied away from nearing the line of what is ethical and unethical when they market directly to children or rely on sex or stereotypes to sell their products. But even the slightly unethical marketing schemes like the ones previously listed are still considered ethical by business ethics.
Neuromarketing is highly manipulative because of its discrete invasive nature. What makes it even more of a concern is the idea that it can be used on anyone, specifically the youth since they are the most susceptible to the ‘monkey see monkey do’ mimicking effect of what they see on TV. There’s nothing stopping big companies like Coca-Cola and Frito-Lay from using neuromarketing to market their unhealthy products to children. These companies can easily hack into kids’ brains and make them suddenly want nothing but soda and a bag of crisps instead of healthier foods not as widely marketed, and this does nothing to help with the obesity pandemic facing our country. The end result is that our society may inevitably end up as a dystopia of consumer junkies – desensitized and near brain dead, only living for the next hit.