Brain Games

Many members of advertising's vanguard are calling on the scientists of the brain for help. This trend has been whispered about in marketing departments and agencies for the last several years and is now so much a part of the mainstream lexicon of marketers that it was featured on the cover of Forbes in September, within the New York Times Magazine in October, and romanticized in William Gibson's latest novel Pattern Recognition.

How it is done is far from easy: CAT Scans, Magnetic Resonance Imaging and electroencephalography, et al, but the basic premise is relatively simple. After decades of fumbling around in the dark with consumers, some scientists have decided that consumers must have a "buy button" buried deep in their brains, and if we can just turn it on, then we win. If the thought of this triggers memories of Skinner and Pavlov, you are not alone.

I am not debunking the validity of all the various methodologies being discussed: it makes perfect sense that our brains respond to stimuli and that, properly interpreted, these responses will enable marketers to create more effective communications tools. Although reducing all this science to giving away products at vacation resorts to build an association with positive affect is a little too simplistic for the "average bear."



The real issues lie elsewhere. First in the proposition that the consumer is passive, just waiting for the stimulation of our messages, and second in the majority choice for stimuli: television commercials.

The Passive Consumer is Extinct Ten years ago we could have argued for hours over what people are actually doing while watching TV. Even then the research suggested they are doing a whole lot more than sitting waiting for the next: 30 spot (as if they were locked in their chairs). Now, however, even the illusion of the passive, wide-eyed couch potato is shattered.

After all 70% of the US population is online- compared to the 68% who have cable television. That means that the majority of consumers are on the Internet actively navigating to whatever they need, be it news, product specifications, a recipe, health information or the latest song from their favorite band. The one thing that differentiates a consumer's experience on the Internet from any other marketing media is their degree of control. At its most extreme, the Internet consumer can create their own programming and what's more stimulating that that? consumers are active consumers. What does that have to do with how they watch TV? (I can hear traditional marketers now..."Geez, I hate these digital marketers - everything is about the Internet!").

But when it comes to media consumptions circa 2003 A.D. it is. The INTERNET is re-engineering consumers expectations of content put even the experience of TV (not to mention the Network ratings) in flux. I'm not saying that TIVO wouldn't be just as appealing if we all hadn't been online for the last eight years, but... So keep testing brain response, but re-consider the position of the subject from passive to active and adjust methodologies and MRI tubes to accommodate. It only makes sense- if the validity of the research is going to outlast the time it takes to read this column - to look for additional stimuli to expand the study.

The heavy press surrounding the new brain games reasserts the primacy of the basic human instinct to seek out the new as well as our equally primal need for control. Those same very human attributes continue to feed the growth of the Internet. Failure to integrate the impact of the Net on human behavior and media consumption into this work will render it irrelevant. A lot like conducting research on consumer experience of travel in a horse and buggy. Vaguely charming, but a waste of valuable time, money and minds.

Kathy Sharpe is founder and partner of Sharpe Partners, a full-service agency specializing in interactive marketing.

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