A Brave New Branding

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:

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

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.

In his letter to the Senate Commerce Committee, Ruskin asks
‘what would happen in this country if corporate marketers and
political consultants could literally peer inside our brains, and
chart the neural activity that leads to our selections in the
supermarket and the voting booth? What if they then could trigger
this neural activity by various means, so as to modify our behavior
to serve their own ends? … ‘Orwellian’ is not too strong a term
for this prospect.’

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Playing With Your Mind

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Commercial Alert Asks Senate Commerce Committee to Investigate

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