Searching for the Why of Buy
In Atlanta, a consulting organization called the BrightHouse Neurostrategies Group launched the first neuromarketing company in 2002, promising in a news release "to unlock the consumer mind." The company, whose clients include the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Home Depot, Hitachi and Georgia-Pacific, has conducted experiments with neuroscientists at Emory University in an effort to understand product preferences.

Justine Meaux, the company's director of research, said BrightHouse helped businesses apply neuroscience to marketing, brand development and product innovation.

"It is fantastically relevant research," Meaux said. "A few companies are at the stage where they want to incorporate it into their strategy." She declined to name them.

In Los Angeles, Quartz and his Caltech colleagues have been negotiating with a marketing company called Lieberman Research Worldwide to find a way to sell brain-scanning services to advertisers.

"Our intent is to develop some type of strategic alliance that would develop tools and perhaps products for marketing-research users, based on the work Steve's doing," said Tim McPartlin, a senior vice president with the company. "It looks extremely useful to us."

At the Open University in Britain and London Business School, researchers have been recording brain activity as shoppers tour a virtual store. The researchers say they have identified the neural region that becomes active when a shopper decides which product to pluck from a supermarket shelf.

In Germany, DaimlerChrysler Corp. used brain imaging to assess how young men responded to different car designs. In Japan, researchers at Nihon University and the Gallup Organization used brain scanning to probe customer loyalties to a Tokyo department store.

Many researchers are skeptical of efforts to commercialize insights into how the brain works.

"Right now, brain scanning, especially at the level of neuromarketing, is to some degree a matter of tea leaf reading," said George Loewenstein, a behavioral economist at Carnegie Mellon University.

Nevertheless, a consumer group called Commercial Alert sought a congressional investigation of neuromarketing research last year.

"What would happen in this country if corporate marketers and political consultants could literally peer inside our brains, and chart the neural activity that leads to our selections in the supermarket and the voting booth?" asked Gary Ruskin, the group's executive director, in a letter to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

"What if they then could trigger this neural activity by various means, so as to modify our behavior to serve their own ends?"

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Already, some researchers have experimented with brain scanning as a way to probe how the brain responds to political advertising.

At the level of brain cells, sophisticated political arguments and party loyalties are reduced, like product preferences, to the activity of neural circuits honed by eons of evolution.

Research suggests that political beliefs appear to trigger the same malleable circuits of reward, identity, desire and threat.

In a series of unpublished experiments conducted during the recent presidential campaign, UCLA neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni detected intriguing differences in how political brains react. It was the first time brain scanning had been used to study a political question, several experts said.

To 13 volunteers screened for political expertise and party loyalty, Iacoboni showed pictures of Sen. John F. Kerry, President Bush and Ralph Nader while recording their neural activity. He then screened footage for them from Republican and Democratic campaign ads.

Afterward, he recorded how their neural responses changed when they were shown the same faces a second time.

Not surprisingly, Iacoboni found that people watching their favored candidate responded with a surge of activity in the reward circuits of the brain.

Republican die-hards, however, seemed to have a strong positive emotional response to any prominent leader.

But those Republican brain patterns changed when exposed to Bush campaign ads, which stimulated activity in areas involved in more rational deliberation, Iacoboni said.

Shown campaign advertising that touched on the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Republicans and Democrats again had different responses.

"The Democrats had a big response in the amygdala — the anxiety threat detector and bell-ringer in the brain," said UCLA psychiatrist Joshua Freedman, who helped organize the experiment. "Republicans did not have a statistically significant response to that, for whatever reason."

The findings suggest that brain scanners, like focus groups and polling, could someday be a potent tool in probing voter preferences and the effects of campaign ads.

"When we start asking questions about somebody's political disposition and their brain responses, then we start making interpretations about what defines us as people," said Judy Illes, a senior research scholar at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics. "That might have some potentially scary possibilities for misuse."

The research undercuts traditional beliefs about the relationship between the brain and the mind, between the body and its intangible well of being, Illes said. In the process, personality becomes little more than an accidental byproduct of biology, a pattern of spots on a brain image.

"We are starting to probe neural signatures of preference … one of those things that make us uniquely individual. We have to be careful," Illes said. "We are far more than the sum of our spots."