Thursday, December 14, 2006

Buy Button in the Brain

Neuromarketing is the study of the brain’s responses to ads, brands and the rest of the messages filling up the cultural and societal landscape. It is now one of the hottest new tools in the trade. At the most basic levels, companies are starting to shift through the piles of psychological literature that have been steadily growing since the 1990s' boom in brain-imaging technology.

Surprisingly few businesses have kept tabs on the studies - until now. "Most marketers don't take a single class in psychology. A lot of the current communications projects we see are based on research from the '70s," says Justine Meaux, a scientist at Atlanta's Bright House Neurostrategies Group, one of the first and largest neurosciences consulting firms. "Especially in these early years, it's about teaching people the basics. What we end up doing is educating people about some false assumptions about how the brain works."

For decades, marketers have relied on behavioral studies for guidance. But some companies are taking the practice several steps further, commissioning their own fMRI studies. In a study of men's reactions to cars, Daimler-Chrysler has found that sportier models activate the brain's reward centers -- the same areas that light up in response to alcohol and drugs -- as well as activating the area in the brain that recognizes faces, which may explain people's tendency to anthropomorphize their cars.

Increased activity in the brain doesn't necessarily mean increased preference for a product. And no amount of neuromarketing research can transform otherwise rational people into consumption-driven zombies.

Of course we're all influenced by the messages around us, that doesn't take away free choice. Marketers have long known that some brands have a seemingly magic appeal; they can elicit strong devotion, with buyers saying they identify with the brand as an extension of their personalities. The BrightHouse research is expected to show exactly which products those are.

No one has discovered a "buy button" in the brain. But with more and more companies peering into the minds of their consumers, could that be far off?

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