Thought Process

This got buried in draft-mode for a month, so I'm posting it now before it's completely obsolete. It's a response to Mudfud's question, What's the Deal with Neuromarketing?

Neuromarketing, a marketing research technique that uses brain imaging to assess marketing messages was born at Harvard in the late 1990's when Gerry Zaltman (a marketing professor) began scanning people's brains for corporations. From the corporation's standpoint, neuromarketing allows for more concrete data to be collected that is free from problems that plague other types of marketing research, such as self-reporting biases.

She points to self-appointed public servants who's asking a lot of "what-if" questions: what if neuromarketing changes our habits, worsening our diabetes and oil dependency?

The use of neuromarketing by companies that produce tobacco, alcohol, junk food or fast food could be damaging to public health... Neuromarketing could make [political] propaganda more effective, potentially leading to new totalitarian regimes, civil strife, wars, genocide and countless deaths.

Oh, my. This is not an argument so much as excessive hand-wringing, coupled with a plea for regulation from an authority that doesn't exist.

Are we defenseless against neuromarketing? Of course not -- just as we are not defenseless against rhetoric, flattery, viral marketing, or any other new or old forms of advertising. Awareness of the advertiser's game is the first and most important safeguard in avoiding manipulation.

Mudfud also refers to an article that seemed familiar, when I realized I noted it about 18 months ago.

Montague tried to gauge the appeal of Coke's image, its "brand influence," by repeating the experiment with a small variation: this time, he announced which of the sample tastes were Coke. The outcome was remarkable: almost all the subjects said they preferred Coke. What's more, the brain activity of the subjects was now different. There was also activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that scientists say governs high-level cognitive powers. Apparently, the subjects were meditating in a more sophisticated way on the taste of Coke, allowing memories and other impressions of the drink -- in a word, its brand -- to shape their preference.
Pepsi, crucially, couldn't achieve the same effect. When Montague reversed the situation, announcing which tastes were of Pepsi, far fewer of the subjects said they preferred Pepsi. Montague was impressed: he had demonstrated, with a fair degree of neuroscientific precision, the special power of Coke's brand to override our taste buds...

The Times article also hints at progress in pinning down "self-identification" -- the coveted "that's me" response that advertisers are looking for when they show a silhoutted iPodder or a speeding Camaro.

But because this research also promises tantalizing clues to understanding consciousness, banning it is the last thing we should be considering. The same features that make fMRI attractive to marketers will make it a valuable tool for cognitive scientists, psychiatrists, and neurologists.

Besides, consumers have always been in an equilibrium with advertisers and hucksters -- some gullible people will fall for anything, while others are impervious to all manipulation. The rest of us just have to hone our critical faculties to weigh the advertiser's pitch with our own needs and desires.

The questions I asked back then still seem to be the pertinent ones: can this research lead to improvements in identifying learning styles? Personality typing? Dealing with phobias? fMRI lie detectors? The potential of this reseach is great. Someday, we might even undertand what goes on in the minds of those who reflexively tried to stop it.