Marketing: What Makes Us Buy?

A fast-growing industry called neuromarketing uses science to help marketers understand how we respond to products

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On a recent Wednesday night, Eleanor Phipp spent and hourĀ watching commercial television. Nothing unusual about that--except that Phipp, 30, was in a dark room at a South London medical center, lying inside a loudly whirring functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner that mapped her brain as video images flickered before her eyes. Brain scanners, which use radio waves and a powerful magnetic field to trace oxygenated blood to areas of neural activity, are used mainly to study or diagnose brain diseases. But Phipp's brain was being scrutinized by researchers to see how it reacted to the TV pictures--specifically, whether she responded to ads differently at night than in the morning.

The study is being run by Neurosense, a consulting firm based in Oxford, England, and a leader in the fast-growing industry called neuromarketing. Neuromarketing uses neuroscience--particularly fMRI scanners--to better understand how our brain reacts to advertising, brands and products, reactions that for the most part occur subconsciously. The burgeoning ability to understand how the black box of the brain processes images and messages and reaches decisions potentially gives marketers a new tool to fine-tune ads and marketing campaigns, bolster and extend brands and design better products. "It can give valuable information that's not particularly easy to access by other techniques," says Michael Brammer, Neurosense's chairman and co-founder. "It's no surprise that some of these bits of information are interesting commercially."

Interesting? How about holy grail? Companies as diverse as Unilever and DaimlerChrysler have used neuromarketing. Viacom Brand Solutions, the commercial arm of MTV Networks, for instance, had Neurosense study how viewers digest programming and ads. It looked at nine regions of the brain that control such functions as attraction, long- and short-term memory and understanding. A counterintuitive result: commercials generated more activity in eight of those nine cortical regions than the programs did, indicating that ads register.

But programming dominated the ninth area, which controls absorption. Indeed, viewers were so absorbed by the programs that the other areas were nearly dormant. More predictably, the study also found that ads work best when their content is in harmony with the programs they interrupt. An ad for the alcopop WKD, for instance, registered more viewer interest than a Red Cross appeal when both appeared during a South Park clip. Another Neurosense study, for PHD Media, a media-buying agency, looked at which areas of the brain are most receptive to different media--TV, print and radio. PHD used the results to develop software it calls Neuroplanning, which better matches ads to media.

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