6, No. 1, December 2004
Will Your Brain Buy It?
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
desire expressed in marketing discourse is that of wanting to
know what consumers really think and feel about a product, and,
ideally, how to ascertain their inner most desires before they
voice them. Further, marketers may seek mechanisms that induce
an irresistible desire to purchase specific goods--the ultimate
"buy button" that marketers themselves push. In the quest for
this knowledge, marketing researchers have employed qualitative
and quantitative techniques, such as focus groups, participant
observation and data mining.
however, growing unease about existing marketing techniques and
their overall value. Several recent articles in the popular business
press have articulated concerns in the marketing community about
the effectiveness of advertising in general and of research methods
in particular as efficacious in eliciting true knowledge about
what consumers really think or desire. For example, there have
been concerns about the ineffectiveness of focus groups (Gross,
2003), waning effectiveness of mass media (Bianco, 2004), the
fragmentation and fracturing of the mass market, caused by such
new information and communication technologies, as TIVO, PDAs
and video games, and the takeover of advertising agencies by accountants,
focused on return on investment rather than creative advertising
to the perceived crisis in marketing has been the adoption of
still new forms and techniques for reaching consumers. One such
technique touted by some marketing researchers as able to solve
the current limitations of marketing and consumer research is
"neuromarketing." While in some use since at least 1998, the technique
burst into the public arena with an announcement in 2002 by the
Atlanta-based Brighthouse Institute for Thought Sciences of their
approach to marketing research based on the study of the brain.
The Institute announced its use of functional Magnetic Resonance
Imaging (fMRI) for the purpose of identifying "patterns of brain
activity that reveal how a consumer is actually evaluating a product,
object or advertisement." The Institute further promised to "change
the marketing world forever by using science to observe and understand
the true drivers of consumer behavior" (Brighthouse Institute,
2002). Brighthouse thus located itself at the intersection of
new ways of understanding the subject, now through biotechnical
means, and the need of advertisers for solid knowledge about consumers.
of neuromarketing research involves placing a subject, flat on
his back, head restrained to prevent movements of more than two
millimeters, within a large metal cylinder that houses a large
magnet or series of magnets. A subject described her research
my head is packed into a spongy wedge, then further braced with
earmuffs and a hockey mask. In the tube, amid a raucous buzzing,
images begin flashing across the overhead display. Because the
reactions Quartz (the researcher) is recording are subconscious,
there's nothing to do but lie back and watch the parade." (Kahn,
As I discuss
further below, the process of producing images of brain functions
requires a sharp reduction of the normal movements of the subject
and her conscious thought processes.
projects involved a relatively small number of subjects, from
four to twenty subjects per project being common. For some projects,
subjects are asked to fill out questionnaires prior to having
their brains scanned. The questionnaires enable researchers to
compare verbalized preferences about a specific set of products
and neurological data regarding those preferences. While many
social scientists may object to the small number of subjects tested,
some neuromarketers argue that, since the method is so accurate,
the small number of subjects is sufficient. As Ken Bernhardt,
a professor of marketing at Georgia State University puts it,
"renting time on an MRI is expensive, but the tests are so accurate
that the company only has to use about one-third as many paid
participants" (Lovel 2002). Thus, in the minds of these researchers,
the smallness of the sample becomes a virtue, amplifying the breakthrough
status claim of neuromarketing.
research is based on neuroscience, a branch of research with a
long history dating back to the 1870s in London (Star, 1989).
It has gathered enormous speed during the last few years with
the invention and widespread use of advanced forms of tomography,
including positron emission tomography (PET), magnetic resonance
imaging (MRI) and functional MRI (fMRI). The Nobel Prize of Medicine
in 2003 went to two researchers credited with discovering ways
of using magnetic fields to visualize differences among structures
MRI is the technique often used for experiments in neuromarketing.
To simplify what is actually a very complex process, we could
say that it relies on the ability of powerful magnets to differentiate
the level of oxygenation in specific areas of the brain. Neuronal
activity in a region of the brain calls for more energy, which,
in turn, brings a greater supply of oxygenated blood to that area.
It is this greater level of oxygenation that fMRI is able to highlight
(Heeger&Ress, 2002). While the technique has become increasingly
routine in medical practice, its use to do primary research about
brain functions and their location has been more problematic;
interpretation of what the different images of the brain actually
mean has been prone to ambiguity. FMRI images used as illustrations
in the popular press are complex constructs, based on decisions
made by the researchers about what to highlight and how. The whole
process of coloring the images, for example, is highly interpretative.
Dumit cites an article from Brian Murphy, who used an image created
with PET scanning, coloring the image in forty different ways,
to illustrate how coloration, taken out of context, can be very
misleading. (Dumit 2004) Within the scientific community brain
scans are interpreted within the context of accompanying graphics,
narrative and mathematical data. Once the images start circulating
outside the scientific community, the context quickly disappears
and the images become transformed from an aid in grasping complex
data to an uncontestable depiction of reality itself.
a certain irony in the claims of neuromarketers to have reached
reality itself, unmediated and undiluted by conscious thought.
In fact, just about every step of the process necessary for collecting
data is highly "unnatural". Thus, for example, in a recently published
study on consumer preferences between Coke and Pepsi, subjects
were placed inside the noisy magnetic cylinder, heads firmly restrained,
and given precisely measured squirts of "soft drink" via a plastic
tube. The "soft drink" was emptied of carbonation in order to
ensure reliable flow through the plastic tubes. (McClure et al.,
2004) It is immediately evident that subjects are distanced from
their own natural processes of drinking a product and that, as
discussed below, neuromarketing research involves a technoscientific
framing that aims at eliminating the social as much as possible.
again to the issue of understanding what the brain images mean,
we can see it as highly interpretative, in fact, as a process
of construction. While public discourse about brain imaging may
suggest that the technique is akin to filming brain activity in
real time, the reality is one of different sets of images taken
and decisions made about each image. The very categories with
which the already complex images are analyzed are often based
on dubious behavioral traits. An entertaining example of interpretative
difficulties is provided in a recent article in Wired.
We read about Jennifer Kahn, a journalist invited to participate
in an experiment to measure her level of cultural sophistication
or "coolness" in comparison to that of the researcher, Dr. Stephen
Quartz, and his assistant, Ms. Annette Asp. The test was set up
to measure the brain responses to 140 celebrity icons and products
that purported to represent distinct levels of coolness. The items
were selected and categorized on a sliding scale of "coolness"
by the main investigator, Dr. Steven Quartz, with the help of
a group of art school students. Apparently the original results
did not quite match the expectations of the researcher and his
assistant. When Kahn returned to learn the results three weeks
later, she found out that she was a "high cool". This categorization
did not last. A few weeks later she learned that the category
"high cool" had been demoted to a lower level of sophistication
called "cool fools." A new category, called "uncool connoisseurs,"
became the highest level in the scale, which the researcher occupied.
Not surprisingly the new results matched more closely the original
expectations of a very high level of "coolness" for both the researcher
and his assistant and less so for the journalist. As Kahn summarizes
the new interpretation of the same original images "I am a geek,
he (Quartz) is a risk taker and Asp (the assistant) is absolutely
article is obviously anecdotal, it serves to illustrate the process
involved in reaching conclusions and the inescapable steps of
interpretation that swiftly reintroduce the cultural, the social,
the political unto the supposedly pure images produced by scanning
the brain. (Kahn, 2004)
been some resistance to the practice of neuromarketing. A consumer
group, Commercial Alert, has called for the Senate Commerce Committee
to investigate the implications of neuromarketing for society
(Consumer Alert, 2004). Consumer Alert makes several interesting
points, including raising a red flag about one of the main investigators
in Brighthouse specializing in addiction. Is neuromarketing, they
wonder, going to be used to target groups of people vulnerable
to addictive consumption and purchasing behavior? This watchdog
group nonetheless concedes all the claims that neuromarketers
make about the efficacy of their practices. This efficacy is no
means established and this may be a more useful avenue of contestation.
of neuromarketing needs may be seen within the larger context
of the rise of neuroscience. In fact, neuroscience is a set of
discourses and scientific practices vying with genomics for dominance
as theoretical framework for a post social construction of the
subject. While both bodies of knowledge aim at reducing the social
to the biological, they present very different forms of constructing
the subject. Although genetic-based production of knowledge is
currently more dominant, neuroscience is making progress in establishing
itself as a potentially distinct standpoint for the study of the
subject. The call by Donald Kennedy, current editor of the influential
journal Science, for caution in the practice of brain research
gives some insight into the neuroscience program for framing explanations
about human individuality. He states:
Far more that our genomes, our brains are us, marking out the
special character of our personal capacities, emotions, and convictions.
As to my brainome, I don't want anyone to know it for any purpose
whatsoever. (quoted in Hamilton, 2004).
by the quotation above, neuroscience is being framed as capable
of revealing the markers of our individual make-up. Note also the
introduction of the concept of "brainome" as a concept distinct
from "genome" but borrowing from the latter's discursive strength
and also the unexamined certainty about the knowledge produced by
neuroscience. All of this is not to say that genomics and neuroscience
are oppositional. In fact, the integration of all the levels of
neuroscience is conceptualized as including the genetic makeup of
neurotransmitters. Both genomic and neuroscience aim to become overarching
technoscientific frameworks for the study, the construction, of
is highly dependent on the discourse and practice of neuroscience.
It borrows the techniques and research technologies from neuroscience.
It is indistinguishable from it except in subject matter, and,
even in this area, is becoming more closely aligned as medical
research increasingly tiptoes around areas of behavioral preferences.
Neuromarketing also feeds on the increasing popularization of
brain images purporting to show different aspects of mental activity
or states of disease. The casual use of these images in the media
lends an air of inexorable truth to the narratives and interpretations
that accompany those images.
represents a new way of producing knowledge about the consumer.
It can potentially provide new knowledge usable by advertising
agencies to market themselves and their marketing campaigns to
advertisers searching for fresh ways of reaching consumers. One
observer notes that advertising agencies have tended to produce
knowledge through the practices of the social sciences (Hackley,
2002). Given that neuromarketing moves from psychology to cognitive
neuroscience, we may well ask whether new types of advertising
agencies grounded in emerging biomedical knowledge will emerge.
It is also possible that hybrid forms of knowledge may result
from the interactions between neuromarketing results and the cultural
knowledge that agencies have produced and built upon in marketing
At the core
of neuromarketing we find a radical decoupling of the individual
from her social context. The research practice, by placing the
subject inside the MRI cylinder, by restricting head movement,
by instructing her to avoid laughing or coughing, isolates the
individual almost totally. The social disappears in the process
of generating knowledge. With neuromarketing procedures promising
a conversation with the brain, the individual herself disappears.
In fact, the individual, as the bearer of idiosyncrasies, is often
barely tolerated by the researchers who fear the tainting of the
images by some specific characteristic of the subject under study.
In the very process of selecting volunteers, researchers are looking
for ways of straining out the social. Simon Cohn, in his study
of practices in neuroscience centers in England, reports that
researchers try to select out volunteers who might be too inquisitive.
Thus, some refuse to work with people trained in psychology or
with students that appear too curious (Cohn, 2004).
represents an exercise in reconstituting the sovereign subject
of marketing, namely the embodied bundle of desires that can be
coaxed into buying what the marketer desires. It presents a novel
interlocutor to advertisers, however, in that it is the brain
and not the whole person that is of interest. Neuromarketing research,
given the assumptions it embodies, aims at capturing brain activity
purified from social and individual markers. It can be seen as
a discourse and set of practices aiming at constructing a post
human consumer. It may grow in influence, carried on the coattails
of neuroscience more generally, but, like phrenology before it,
is unlikely to escape the larger context of the social world.
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