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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Those kinds of options have produced a boom across Europe in neuromarketing consultants, including Neuroconsult, which hung out its shingle in Vienna earlier this year and is run by Peter Walla, a neurobiologist who teaches at Vienna University and two other schools. German researcher Peter Kenning says when he did a Google Internet search on the term neuromarketing five years ago, he turned up a couple of hits. Today a similar search yields more than 200,000. FMRI technology emerged only about 15 years ago. Efforts to combine it with marketing began in the late 1990s. (Neurosense was launched in 1997.) The appellation neuromarketing popped up several years later, possibly coined by Ale Smidts, a marketing professor at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. It's essentially a subgenre of another emerging discipline, neuroeconomics. "Neuromarketing is seen as more negative," Smidts says, because of marketing's commercial connotations.

The field got a high-profile, scholarly boost two years ago when a study by Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, published in the academic journal Neuro, used fMRI technology to determine that cola drinkers subconsciously have warmer feelings for the Coca-Cola brand, and that gives Coke an edge over Pepsi, even though Pepsi performs as well as Coke in blind taste tests.

Brain scanning is the field's dominant technology, but others are used as well, often in conjunction with fMRIs. Magnetoencephalography (MEG), a technology that can read electrical signals pulsating from brain cells, is popular because it detects how quickly the brain reacts to stimuli. But unlike fMRI scans, MEG can't identify which parts of the brain are reacting. And that's important, since researchers say it's the interplay between the deeper, older, primitive brain, where our emotions reside, and the more logical neocortex, which informs our decision making. And because the dance between the old- and new-brain areas occurs in the subconscious, that's information focus groups or polls can never determine.

Are there limits to neuromarketing's reach? FMRI studies are expensive. Brammer says a medium-size study could cost from $94,000 to $188,000. Less expensive options can answer some marketing questions, though. For Unilever, Walla recently used a startle-reflex method that measures muscle control of eye blinks to determine that eating ice cream makes people happier than eating yogurt or chocolate. Another drawback of scanners: lying in one is hardly a natural environment for watching TV or spotting brands. But new versions that let subjects sit up under contraptions that resemble salon hair dryers should increase the comfort factor.

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