A Brave New Branding

The emergence of neuromarketing

| March 3, 2005

Commercial Alert, a consumer watchdog group, has spent the past seven years policing advertising and marketing campaigns to 'keep the commercial culture within its proper sphere, and to prevent it from exploiting children and subverting the higher values of family, community, environmental integrity, and democracy.' Founded by Ralph Nader and Gary Ruskin in 1998, Commercial Alert has worked to keep advertising out of schools and off children's public television shows such as Sesame Street. In recent years, they have encountered a much more insidious and slipperier enemy: neuromarketing.

A combination of health science and marketing, neuromarketing uses functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to illustrate the brain's response to certain advertising techniques and campaigns, which helps gauge overall effectiveness. Until recently, according to Commercial Alert's website, fMRI technology was strictly used for health care and health research.

Emory University professor Clinton Kilts started using fMRI technology to get in consumer's heads when 'we became aware of frustration from the consumer about what business is not doing -- that is, finding out who the consumer is and what the consumer wants,' he explained in an interview with Dean Schabner of ABCnews.com. Kilts told Schabner he is mainly interested in studying preferences. For instance: Why, when a person prefers Pepsi's taste during a blind taste test, do they still buy Coca-Cola?

In 2001, Kilts and other researchers joined with BrightHouse, an Atlanta based marketing firm, to form the BrightHouse Neurostrategies Group. Representatives at BrightHouse will only say that they get their funding for neuromarketing research from an undisclosed Fortune 500 company. But as David Wahlberg reports in The Atlanta Journal Constitution, BrightHouse has just four Fortune 500 clients: Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, Georgia-Pacific, and Metlife.

Kilts and BrightHouse are not alone in their use of neuromarketing research. CalTech, Ford, DaimlerChrysler, Baylor College of Medicine, Penn State, and Harvard Business school, to name a few, are also doing neuromarketing research, claims Commercial Alert. In a letter to the Senate Commerce Committee requesting an ethical study of neuromarketing, Ruskin points out that 'CalTech neuroscientist Steven Quartz is using an fMRI to help movie studios figure out which movie trailers will attract the most filmgoers. (What if Michael Moore had that capacity?)'

As Kilts explained in his interview with ABC, most agree that scientists do not know of any 'buy button' in the brain yet, but that is exactly what Commercial Alert is concerned is just around the corner.

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