Keep Your Conspicuous-Consumption Hands Off My Brain

Neuromarketing research has been around since 1990, when it was developed by psychologists at Harvard. In a lab setting, it is supposed to measure changes in your physiological state and biometrics such as heart and respiratory rates and galvanic skin response to see how you respond to marketing stimuli, why you make the decisions you do, and which areas of your brain are in play when you do.

The technology is based on a model that asserts the major thinking part of human activity (over 90%), including emotion, takes place in the subconscious. Thus, we can only conclude that all of this is an attempt to learn the techniques of effective manipulation of subconscious brain activity.

This week we read that marketers and agencies are now turning to emerging technology  -- such as wireless EEG headsets, biometric scanners, and facial-and eye-tracking software -- to understand the effectiveness of display and video ads on smartphones. This allegedly involves algorithms that can decipher how you felt during an ad or how long you looked at one. Other researchers are examining the role of brain activity, visual patterns, heartbeats and facial movements play in your response to ads.




While you might argue that all of these brainwave studies are simply ways to improve advertising efficiency (right message, right place, right time) the notion that marketers are poking around brain activity to sell more stuff is repugnant.

For a variety of reasons that are already familiar to you -- from shitty creative to protracted ad pods, from "creepy" online tracking to algorithms that are driven by highly inaccurate data input  -- the public thinks that advertising as a profession ranks right down there with used car salesmen and serial killers (still, a mite higher than "Congressional representatives").

Now, try to imagine how much more they will hate us when some enterprising reporter goes long-form on a summary of the efforts being made to get past a target audience's conscious thoughts.

According to at least one psychology trade story, the current consensus among marketing professionals is that subliminal messages are counterproductive. Some in the business have misgivings about using this tactic in marketing campaigns due to ethical considerations. Moreover, recent studies have shown that efforts to brand or stimulate consumption via the subconscious simply don't work.

Yet we persist. The public understands -- and on most levels accepts -- skunk works that dream up better ways to kill people through advancing technology (did you see the video of the machine gun that fires a million bullets a minute?). Most of them are pretty passive about research into genetically modified foods that can grow bigger, faster while resisting insects and fungus. But tell them about research built around breaking down their conscious resistance to greater consumption, and you give them just one more reason to hate this industry.

5 comments about "Keep Your Conspicuous-Consumption Hands Off My Brain".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, February 19, 2016 at 8:01 a.m.

    This kind of small scale research has been around for many years and, in some cases, provides some valuable insights. The problem is that brainwave researchers   lack enough  pror normative data, correlated with results---sales----to guide advertisers who go this route regarding interpreting the findings. In any event, consumers have little to worry about as most advertisers will continue to rely on long established ad effectiveness metrics in fashioning their campaigns. Brainwave research is just an add-on metric for some who wish to dig deeper, assuming that a way can be found to execute this kind of research under "normal" viewing situations.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, February 19, 2016 at 11:03 a.m.

    "We are begging to be controlled." There are too many nefarious people able to use technology from catapults to powers of suggestion (cults, e.g. or memories music stimulate), those machine guns firing a million bullets per minute to carpet bomb civilizations to just sit tight about it. 

  3. A.K. Ahuja from CRESCENDO, February 19, 2016 at 7:32 p.m.

    Ed - although I agree with you in theory, there's a large element of the unknown (when it comes to Neuromarketing/Neuroscience) that persists with the majority of marketers/advertisers today. We've been doing this for 7+ years now; however it wasn't until recently that this whole realm of effectively marketing to the subconscious brain has risen to the surface. The positive is that with today's technological advancements, we're able to do so much more in this space...and it's only a matter of time before we can roll out a "cloud" version of this neuroscientific technology that would apply to "normal" viewing situations (as opposed to in-lab testing, or even at-home testing but with the software installed).

  4. George Simpson from George H. Simpson Communications, February 20, 2016 at 12:27 a.m.

    "this whole realm of effectively marketing to the subconscious brain..."

    And there you have it.

  5. John Grono from GAP Research, February 20, 2016 at 7:25 p.m.

    If you look at Robert Heath's work on 'Low Involvement Processing Theory' from the turn of the century, I think you will find that we have been marketing to the subconscious brain longer than we realise and certainly before the rise of neuroscience.   I see the neuroscience work more as validating Heath's theory.

    Plus I think all good creatives knew this - either consciously or sub-consciously - from the ads 'that worked'.  For example, ads include jingles - you only need to hear a few notes and the brain snaps into gear and uses memory to recall the brand association.   Products uses colour - Cadbury basically owns the clour purple.

    I found that if you used a combination of Heath's low involvement and Erwin Ephron's propinquity theory then you basically had a really effective campaign schedule on your hands.

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