Underhand Tactics: Neuromarketing

Benoit Bringer

France 2012, 52 min.

More and more companies are turning to neuromarketing. This controversial practice involves studying consumers’ brains, analyzing how and why we respond to certain stimuli, in order to influence our decisions. It’s based on the idea that 90% of the decisions we make are taken at a subconscious level. One company that has used neuromarketing is McDonald’s. They developed a perfume which was subtly diffused in restaurants to increase brand association and boost sales. Proctor & Gamble also tried a similar trick. Sales of Ariel washing powder increased by 70% after an artificial perfume was placed under the lid. 

Bigger better faster more brain doping

What is it about commercials that makes it so hard to let go of them? As media consumers we have seen many things and it takes a lot to surprise us or blow us away with a print or audiovisual commercial. We have gotten so used to commercials that we don’t pay any attention to them any longer. Or at least so we think. Rationally we don’t want anything to do with commercials. Perhaps we even hate them. We hate them when they interfere in the middle of the film we’re watching on TV. And we hate the long commercial run in theatres before the motion picture is screened. But even though we hate commercials, they are still around. And in great numbers. Why? Probably because despite our hatred of them, they still work.

The television documentary Neuromarketing takes a look at the latest technologies in advertisement and marketing. The documentary is part of the Underhand Tactics series that has previously dealt with other ‘hot’ topics such as toxic labels, sugar overload and disease branding. In Neuromarketing we travel around the globe – but mostly stay in France and the US – in order to see examples of the new technology. So what is going on? Well, for starters the science of the brain and how it works – what we could label neuroscience (but which is not limited to neuroscience) – has developed radically in recent years. Technological advancements in for instance scanner machinery have created a wealth of detailed information about how our brain works.

1439122853425The thing is, even though we live in a pretty advanced society and are experienced media consumers our brain still works in pretty much the same way as hundred thousand years ago. The neuroscientists say that we still have a reptilian part of the brain that actually is the decision maker and often overrules our rational way of thinking. When it comes to desires, fear and anxiety, rational thinking can’t really do much. We still react and feel emotions the same way.
This kind of knowledge is of course something marketing and advertising folks are keen to get their hands on. Just think about the character Don Draper from the popular television series Mad Men about an advertisement agency on Madison Avenue in the 1960s. Don Draper is thinking about ways to reach the customer in emotional ways, he has a gut feeling when it comes to creating emotions in the recipient. With new neuroscientific knowledge you no longer need a gut feeling. You need an MRI Scanner.

Neuromarketing offers several interesting – and somewhat frightening – examples of the combination of advertising and neuroscience. In England, for instance, studies were carried out for McDonald’s in order to discover what kind of scent was most linkable to the McDonald’s brand. Volunteers were placed in the scanner and different scents were tried out while volunteers looked at the McDonald’s logo. One scent was better than the rest and this scent was then placed in the cleaning products used at selected McDonald’s restaurants, after which sales increased.

Discover what kind of scent was most linkable to the McDonald’s brand

Another example: on the website of the national French railway company SNCF they discovered that placing pine trees next to travel advertisements for the Christmas holiday increased the website user’s desire to purchase a Christmas holiday. And a third example: in France a research team has set up a supermarket in a large apartment where they get volunteers to walk around with eye tracking devices so the researchers can see where on the label of a given product the customer spends most time and what kind of brain activity the different parts of the label generates. This kind of knowledge can of course help the clients to create more effective labels.

This may all seem simple and one might be able to discover these things without the use of neuroscience but – says the documentary – with neuroscience you can get much more accurate measurements and thus much more precise information about how to trigger the parts of the brain that in the end take the decision whether to purchase a product or not.
I am not sure if all this is some kind of pseudoscience or if there really is something to it. Neuromarketing unfortunately only seems to scratch the surface of an otherwise interesting and ethically important subject. Most of the film is made up of interviews or voice-over parts and sometimes the documentary seems to be more about the obstacles of making the documentary and getting the interviews than it is about neuromarketing.


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