Page last updated at 12:28 GMT, Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Can brain scans help companies sell more?

By Doreen Walton
Science reporter, BBC News


Neurofocus's Quentin Baldwin explains neuromarketing to Doreen Walton

In the battle for our money and loyalty, companies wanting to sell us products have turned their attention to something right under our noses.

Or behind our noses. The brain is now being called the ultimate business frontier and technology is letting firms take a look inside our heads.

In this neurological market research participants wear a cap fitted with brain sensors as they watch adverts.

Emotional response, attentiveness and memory function are all measured.

An electroencephalogram or EEG, a painless brain scan, allows researchers to track the electrical impulses across the surface of the brain. I volunteered as a guinea pig to see how it works.

EEG's have been around for roughly ninety years and are regularly used in medical applications for diagnosing epilepsy.

In the last two decades the technology has moved on. Activity used to be recorded using pens on moving paper, now it can be digitised instantaneously into graphs.

The equipment has also recently become a lot smaller and more portable so the marketing experts now believe it can be used more widely as a tool for studying the reactions of potential consumers.

Trade secrets

In the demonstration of the technique, I was fitted with something that looked a bit like a swimming cap full of holes.

Sensors which capture brainwave activity 2,000 times a second were plugged into the holes. A gel was squeezed into the holes to allow my brain's electrical signals to be picked up.

As the sensors were fastened in place in the cap and two put by my eye to monitor blinking, Darren Bridger, director of lab operations at Neurofocus Europe, explained the basics.

Neuromarketing cap
Neural marketing is becoming a hot topic in the marketing and scientific communities
Professor Nilli Lavie
University College London

"Computers now allow you to aggregate the results and sample more people. You can also calibrate responses according to previous results.

"You get different responses depending on whether you're looking at a large or a small screen; say a television or a mobile phone. And if you're walking around a supermarket you're going to get a different response from if you're looking at a static screen."

My sensor cap was covered with a floppy hat before we filmed. Darren explained that was to hide trade secrets, the location of the sensors, from competitors. It seems neuromarketing is a cut-throat business - financial stakes from potential clients in the world of marketing and branding are high.

As it was Monday morning, I wasn't too sure how much brain activity I would have going on but as the equipment fired up different coloured lines started to squiggle across the screen.

I was given a couple of short films to watch. My brain waves appeared as constantly updating graphs. These are translated into indicators for attention, emotion and memory. Algorithms are used to calculate which scenes you like the most.

Appealing penguins

After the first film Neurofocus's Quentin Baldwin, who demonstrates the technology for clients, pronounced that I liked penguins. This is not unusual, he explained, most people find penguins appealing because their waddling movements resemble small children walking.

I was slightly uncomfortable with the idea of my thoughts and reactions being spied on. After the second promo Quentin told me my subconscious had really liked the giraffes as well as the faces.

"As humans we're really drawn to faces, especially close up faces, eyes and things like that. Neurologically they appeal a lot," he told me. Nothing too sinister revealed there then.

In a real sample at least 24 participants are used and between 64 and 128 sensors per head are used to measure the reaction to a company's messages and products.

The sensors are used in conjunction with eye tracking equipment to give an overall picture of the subject's reactions.

Subconscious shopping

But to what extent can a brain scan really determine our preferences? Professor Nilli Lavie, from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, expressed some doubt. She also pointed out the possible benefits.

One big concern is that one needs to assess the cost versus the benefit
Professor Nilli Lavie

"Neural marketing is becoming a hot topic in the marketing and scientific communities," she said. "In general, the approach can be very productive and may potentially reveal information about the consumer's brain that would otherwise be hard to obtain.

"But in some areas I think the gap between what we know scientifically and what we know about predicting consumer choice is still too big.

"Neuro-scientific research can be used to find out what type of marketing tools or advertisements better attract the consumers attention."

But she cautioned that it might be more difficult to find out what exactly dictates the consumer's choice in terms of what they eventually purchase.

"At the end of the day we have to accept that, to some extent, purchases may also be decided upon by whimsical, impulsive urges."

Professor Lavie said there was another type of neuroimaging that might be preferable. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) gives a clearer indication of what is going on in the consumer's mind.

It provides better spatial resolution, meaning you can tell more easily which brain areas are active.

"When it comes to specific neural marketing tools the clearest method and the one that has been researched the most in the scientific domain would be brain scanning with fMRI."

It is an expensive route to take though. "A big concern is that one needs to assess the cost versus the benefit and the cost is naturally very high for use in these methods," added Professor Lavie.

Researchers expect neuromarketing to become more accurate and more widely used.

Our subconscious is getting involved in the shopping experience as never before.

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