Imagine if corporations could wire advertisements straight into your brain. They’d probably ping you with a soap commercial right when you were in the middle of taking a shower and ask you to pay twenty bucks a month for an ad-free showering experience. Except once you paid, the experience wouldn’t actually be ad-free, because the deal’ would only be valid for selected brands.
It’s hard not to worry about a future like that sometimes. But you don’t need to worry—because in a sense, that future is already here.
In 2002, an advertising firm called BrightHouse issued a press release saying that one of their groups, BrightHouse Neurostrategies, would start using brain scans, based on MRI technology, to study potential buyers as part of their marketing research. As you can imagine, the concept was not well-received and the firm ended up having to pull its website. BrightHouse continues to function as a marketing consultancy, and for the most part, the whole idea was more or less ignored for some time.
Two years later, psychologist Samuel McClure and his colleagues became the first to study neuromarketing in a more conventional scientific setting. They had a few people do a blind taste test between Pepsi and Coca-Cola, using an fMRI scan to map their brains’ response to each soft drink. Not surprisingly, their responses were almost identical when they didn’t know which drink was which, but some areas of their brains showed more activity when the subjects were able to identify each brand separately.
The findings weren’t surprising, but the method was. These scientists had just proven it possible to predict buyer behavior based on something that was physiologically identifiable, opening up all sorts of new possibilities for the marketing sector.
Getting in your head
Simply put, neuromarketing is the application of neuroscience, aka brain science, to marketing.
So far, it usually involves using a range of devices and techniques, from eye-tracking devices to brain scans, which all help researchers gain insight into why people buy things.
“A person’s mental activities,” wrote neuroscientist Francis Crick, in his 1994 book The Astonishing Hypothesis, “are entirely due to the behavior of nerve cells, glial cells, and the atoms, ions, and molecules that make them up and influence them.” Over the years, his theory, known famously as Crick’s Hypothesis, has become more or less the consensus among most neuroscientists.
Neuromarketing, or consumer neuroscience, has opened advertisers to new and exciting ways to market their products, using data obtained straight from the buyer’s brain. It’s a lucrative business. But the ethical concerns still present some barriers.
Tools of the trade
The most common form of neuromarketing involves brain scans.
Neuroscientists often use an electro-encephalogram (EEG) device that measures cellular activity in different parts of the brain through sensors attached to a subject’s head. The technique is very fast, but catches fewer details compared to the nuances of data obtained by an fMRI, or functional magnetic resonance imaging machine.
Essentially, fMRI scans use magnetic fields to track blood flow across different regions of the brain. The process is slower and more expensive than an EEG, but it enables deeper inspection further below the cerebral cortex.
Of course, there are many cheaper, easier are ways to measure neurological activity without imaging any imaging.
Eye tracking technology, like the relatively new Tobii Eye-Tracker, can monitor a user’s level of attention on a webpage, which reveals places where a viewer may linger on one point, and skip over other content. In 2013, Google patented a so-called pay-per-gaze platform for its smart glasses. The system was supposed to use eye tracking software to charge advertisers each time someone looked at their ads while browsing the web. It also measured pupil dilation to see how the user reacted to an ad emotionally.
For the most part, however, neuromarketing still takes place inside test labs, and is practiced on willing participants and volunteers.
Another method requires devices and applications that read facial expressions. Realeyes, a startup based in London, uses artificial intelligence to read the minute expressions on a person’s face to create the perfect ad. Mihkel Jäätma, the founder of Realeyes, says that his ultimate goal is to improve the way artificial intelligence perceives emotions: “Right now, AI is like this big brain that is very intelligent and knows everything, but what we say is that it misses a heart,” he told The Guardian last year. “What we want to build into the AI is emotional understanding and consciousness. So, the better we make it, the more likelihood that all this AI stuff will actually be good for humanity and not the other way around.”
Neuroscientists also have techniques to measure heart rate, breathing, and perspiration to gauge a test consumer’s neural response.
Is data the new king of capitalism?
If you look at things from a purely capitalist perspective, we’re only as good as the money we make. Measuring our worth by the value of the data we produce doesn’t sound very comforting, but it supports today’s market environment.
Of course, the idea gives way to some scary thoughts, too, with premonitions of a time when people will have their most intimate thoughts snatched from their conscience by corporations.
But viewing neuromarketing as all bad also limits us. We’ve progressed well beyond the point when we can afford to look at the future of post-privacy data with fear, or decry its existence.
Think about it. What’s the strongest argument against neuromarketing? That it invades personal privacy? That it reduces people to mere commodities? Aren’t these the same arguments that could be used against any form of marketing?
We’ve read stories about advertisers using race and mental illness to target people based on their innermost vulnerabilities and without their consent. Not that it makes any of that conduct acceptable, but it does make you wonder why neuromarketing is the getting singled out as especially loathsome, when there are so many other red flags in this industry to sort through.
The worst threats in neuromarketing come not from academic research but from commercially funded experimental programs. And even so, they’re often exaggerated—at this point, at least.
For example, techniques like fMRI scans or facial expression reading are applied mostly to participants in a research or study, who’ve willingly volunteered for a test session. Most marketing research is conducted on focus groups that voluntarily sign up for them. No matter how popular neuromarketing gets, it’s unlikely that every person will end up being strapped to a giant helmet that sends data from their brains straight into corporations’ hands. This means that for now, people who do not sign up to give their data won’t have their information collected.
Ultrasonic tracking, on the other hand, potentially applies to anyone with a smartphone or tablet. Basically, this technique uses the speakers on your device to determine your location based on high-frequency signals (inaudible to the average human ear), tracks your route and daily habits, including what retailers you frequent. A company gathers the data and sells it to ad agencies and marketing teams, which then can target you with ads that speak to your habits accordingly.
This may be an indication of what we can expect to happen when neuromarketing finally goes beyond research into wider commercial application. But again, given the fact that smart technology necessarily already relies on so much of our data, the actual impact of neuromarketing going to the commercial advertising market might not be as drastic as we think.
Most fears surrounding consumer neuroscience come from ideas of a dystopian reality that current technology can’t even support. Conducting focused research on willing participants does not endanger anyone, it just makes society open to cheaper and more efficient ways to sell things. Adtech can feel like a scary business—and there is always a lingering fear about what the future might hold—but isn’t that true for any new technology?